Jangseong

Back on the afternoon of Monday August 11th, we got together with one of Blake’s co-teachers for lunch and then a trip to one of the nearby villages outside of Gwangju. Jangseong is where her grandparents live so she is familiar with it and had a list of places she wanted to show us. It is a gorgeous area.

After driving through the town we stopped for a walk in a cypress forest, Chungnyeongsan. It is a managed forest (not sure there is any other kind in Korea) that stretches across a large section of northern Jangseong County. Apparently, the air in cypress forests has a whole host of health benefits so there are several clusters of pensions around the perimeter. When we got there, several families were camped near the parking lot, but the forest itself was actually relatively empty.

From there, we headed to a traditional village, Geumgok, tucked up against the edge of the cypress hills. We wandered up into the village and found a really cool outdoor café in the back of one of the minbak spotted through the village. The gate into the back yard had a sign to ring the bell for service. Tamara did the honours and a very friendly Korean man emerged to usher us into the terraced backyard.

We settled in and ordered a traditional dandelion tea (dandelions are white in Korea). The great thing about the village is that it is actually really quiet. There was no traffic noise, people shouting, or the general hum that is everywhere in Gwangju. Just relaxing and enjoying it was really great. The owners’ two kids were floating around and they were really cute. They brought us complementary sliced peaches at one point. The oldest was only eight, but had amazing English and was more than willing to talk with us. Incredibly, they are home-schooled by their parents, but the eight year old’s English level is higher than many of Blake’s middle school students. He said he learned most of his English from TV and the internet.

Overall, the ambience of the place was great. Blake’s co-teacher explained that the feeling is part of a concept called Cheong in Korean. Cheong is a sort of feeling of attachment, wellness and caring that can exist between people. In this case, the effort that was made to make us feel welcome and the fact that we were so comfortable there indicated that the café and café owners had a lot of Cheong.

We lingered here much longer than we intended, but we had one more stop in mind. There is a park near the end of the lake, just on the southern edge of Najangsan National Park, that is dedicated to a movie director who was born in the area. It has a ton of sculptures, most of which are associated with his movies. We were there for the viewing platform that looks down the valley and across the lake. Sunset was almost over when we arrived, but we managed to get up there in time to catch the last of it.

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It was the perfect way to close out a gorgeous afternoon.

 

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Gangwondo Round Two: Seoraksan

Since arriving in Korea, we have planned to visit Seoraksan National park in the north eastern corner of the country. Relatively accessible from Seoul, Seoraksan is one of the best known parks in Korea, but is quite a long trip from Gwangju. We have been to Gangwondo once before to visit our friend Mica in Yeongwol and we planned to include a trip to Yeongwol in our itinerary this time to visit D. Because it was a long weekend and we knew that things would be pretty busy, we planned to leave Thursday as soon as Tamara finished camp a little after lunch. As things transpired, a homework assignment and a few other little setbacks meant that we didn’t get out of Gwangju until after 2:30. And that’s where the first little hiccup began.

Because we were two hours later than expected reaching Seoul we discovered that all the tickets to Osaek, our intended entry point for Seoraksan, were sold out and we could not get a ticket to Sokcho, the main entry point for Seoraksan until after 11:00 at night. We grabbed a bite at a Turkish/Indian fusion place across from the bus station while we waited. It was actually really delicious so anyone stuck at Dong Seoul for a while, give it a look. Place is called Galata and it’s on the second floor in the building to your left as you leave by the front door.

We didn’t get to Seoraksan until after 1:00 AM and, in our sleep deprived stupor, made a terrible decision about which motel to stay in. FYI, there does not appear to be any good accommodation near the intercity bus terminal.

Friday morning we were a little late getting up moving, so our plan to catch a bus to Osaek and then hike from there to the peak fell through and we headed into the park from the Sokcho side. There are several hiking options from the Sokcho entrance. Most people who are pressed for time hike up to Ulsanbawi which is just over 3 kilometres. We chose to head for the highest peak in the park regardless of our late start. Daecheongbong is over 1700m high and roughly eleven kilometres from the park entrance. We had some idea that we could hike over the peak and down to Osaek on the far side of the summit. The Osaek route is a much shorter and steeper way to Daecheongbong, which is why we had originally planned to take that route.

The map of our proposed route into Osaak - map taken from  the Korea Parks website.

The map of our proposed route into Osaak – map taken from the Korea Parks website.

The buses out there from Sokcho are pretty simple, so we walked past the gigantic Buddha near the start of the trail a little after 9:00. The first four kilometres or so is quite easy walking with much of the trail made up of pavement or carefully laid rocks on a pretty minor incline. This is because up until about 3.7 kilometres there are semi regular places where you can stop and buy food and beverages and all the supplies for these places come in up the trail. Most of this trail quite closely follows a small, beautifully clear river full of amazing looking swimming holes. Of course, swimming is strictly forbidden in the park so all we were able to do was look longingly at the water.

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Although it appeared that the sun was trying to break through the clouds when we started out, the clouds rapidly won that battle and by the time we started to seriously climb we were pretty well surrounded by mist. Scattered along the trails are various shelters where hikers can overnight on their way through the park. As we understand it, some of these can be reserved and some appear to be drop in. Either way, they serve as good landmarks to judge your progress and take necessary breaks along the way.

Starting to wear down.

Starting to wear down.

By the time we passed Hulungak shelter and started the final ascent we were hiking through thick fog and were pretty well beat.

Taking a break on an observation deck just before Hulungak shelter.

Taking a break on an observation deck just before Hulungak shelter.

We decided to abort the full hike and just go to the first peak. By this time we knew there would be no view anyway. We were hiking through mist so thick it was almost like it was raining. We were completely drenched.

 

Heading back down through the fog.

Heading back down through the fog.

The higher we got, the thicker it got. It was pretty though.

The higher we got, the thicker it got. It was pretty though.

Socheong peak was about what we expected – white. However, from the looks of it there would be a heck of a view on a clear day. Of what, we don’t know, but there is a decent looking viewpoint.

The wonderful view from the peak. 1550 metres high.

The wonderful view from the peak. 1550 metres high.

After a few minutes break on the peak we headed back the way we came. The descent was relatively uneventful. By the time we got off the steeper sections, it was starting to turn dusky and we were nearly the only ones on the trail. Figuring this for the perfect time, Tamara opted for a fully-clothed quick dip in one of the oh-so-tempting pools. Fortunately nobody happened along. Of course, who knows – it might be on CCTV. It wouldn’t be the first waterfall we have encountered complete with video surveillance.

We hiked the last five kilometres with a pair of Dutch summer students who were just touring the country before heading home. Because it was completely dark when we reached the bottom, we opted to share a cab back into Sokcho rather than wait for the buses which may or may-not have still been running.

The Buddha lit up at night.

The Buddha lit up at night.

All-told, the trip to the express bus terminal came to 17,000 ₩ for those who are interested. What we had not counted on was the fact that the national holiday coupled with the major celebrations taking place on Sokcho beach would make a room nearly impossible to find. When we finally found a place that still had a room available we were clearly being gouged on the price. It was insanely high for a love motel – and of exceptionally low quality. But by that time it was after 9:00 PM and we had hiked over 20 kilometres throughout the day. Anything with a bed would work. As a side note, we learned over the course of our search the when motels are full, they turn off the light-up signs.

Saturday morning we sorted out transport to Yeongwol. Even though it is in the same province it is a nightmare to get to from Seoraksan. We went through Gangneung where we had a three hour lay-over waiting for the bus to Yeongwol. Rather than hang around the really busy bus terminal, we opted to catch a cab to Namhangjin beach where we had an ocean-view bite of lunch at Love Letter Café followed by a smoothie from Annabel Lee Café and a beach swing.

Namhangjin beach. Apparently there was a music festival over the weekend.

Namhangjin beach. Apparently there was a music festival over the weekend.

We finally arrived in Yeongwol just after 4:00 after an admittedly scenic, but rather long bus ride through the Gangwondo countryside. D met us at the bus terminal and, after dropping our bags at her place, we headed out to join in the going-away festivities for a bunch of the local foreigners. Dinner and drinking followed by drinking games at the CU (convenience store) and Noraebang. A great time was had by all and by the time we got back to her apartment we only had time for about four hours of sleep before catching the only bus back to Gwangju at 7:00 AM.

Despite the many setbacks, it was great to get up to Gangwondo again. It really is a gorgeous part of the country. We highly recommend it to anyone staying in or visiting Korea. It is a pain to get around though, so day trips are probably out.

 

Yeongheungdo and Giant Flower Pots

Last weekend we had to make a trip up to Seoul to take care of a few administrative items and we decided that it would be a great chance to check an item off our bucket list. Several months ago someone had posted an article on facebook about strange places to stay, and one of the places was a pension on Yeongheungdo that is made of gigantic flower pots.

Yeongheungdo is just off the coast of Incheon so we figured it would be easy for us to take care of things in Seoul Friday evening and then head over to Yongheungdo Saturday morning for an afternoon of beach-time. As it turned out, that was not the case. Our Seoul errands went well and we stayed in a jjimjilbang near Seoul Station to get an early start for Saturday.

In the morning we had a quick bite at the station then caught the 1601 bus out front. For those catching these semi-local buses that take you to the region around Seoul, they do not stop with the other city buses. Instead, they stop about two hundred meters to the left as you leave the front of the station. It took us a good half hour to figure that out. Once we had located the correct bus, we had a little over an hours ride through Seoul and the surrounds to the south western part of Incheon.

We must have just missed our transfer bus (790) because we were there for well over an hour before the next bus arrived. The 790 runs from Incheon out across a large seawall to a series of three islands. We were lucky we got on when we did as three stops later people piled on to the point that they were leaning into our seat for the entire ride. Beach day for the greater Seoul area? We also learned that weekend traffic around Seoul is no joke, especially on the way to a beach destination. We spent nearly two and a half hours on that bus creeping along the seawall and across the islands to the last stop. Fortunately, by the time we disembarked there were only seven or eight people left on the bus.

The terminal in Yeongheung-myeon is the last stop for the 790. By this time it was well past lunch so we poked around the village for a place to eat with little success. Eventually, we stopped by the mart and grabbed a few snacks and some street food outside before catching a bus (pink line) across to the Janggyeongni beach area. From the beach it was only about an eight minute walk to 도자기마을펜션. Much of the area is rice fields so we could see the tops of the pots across the valley.

The Pension from across the valley.

The Pension from across the valley.

Our room was the bottom of the back pot. It was pretty neat actually. It was cosy and had a small kitchen area available. Outside there were barbecue areas with picnic tables and chair swings. All around pretty nice.

 

As soon as we had dropped our stuff in the room we changed and headed back to the beach. It was already pretty late in the afternoon and the tide was going out but we got in about an hour of beach time. The beach itself is pretty nice, but the swimming options are pretty limited. About 250 meters off the beach their is a man-made land bridge going most of the way across the bay. As Blake discovered when he tried to go swimming, the water between the beach and the berm likely never gets deeper than about waist deep. With the tide going out the deepest spot he could find did not even reach his knees. Unfortunately, while getting past the berm would not only be difficult, it would also quite likely lead the Korean coast guard to chase you down, or to berate you over the loudspeaker. At any rate, the swim-that-wasn’t was our cue to head out and look for a place for dinner.

Options are pretty limited, but we found a chicken place for a meal before exploring the village a bit. By this time the ‘swimming area’ was just a big mud flat. Before we had seen much of the village Tamara got a call from the lady who runs the pension. Apparently they had cooked dinner for us. It was all a little confusing through the language barrier. Either way, we headed back to try and figure it out. Never managed to find the lady though.

Day two was a travel day. We headed back to Yeongheung-myeon then took the 790 back to Ansan, followed by an express bus down to Gwangju.

Yeongheungdo is a decent place, but not really worth the trip for a single night. Although we only spent a little time on one of the beaches, there are two others on the island as well as at least four major hiking trails around the perimeter. Given the fact that it took us seven hours to get there from Seoul and over eight to get back to Gwangju, it is not a place that we would recommend that highly.

Yeongheungdo Island.

Yeongheungdo Island.

A Note On Teaching and Korean Teachers

Spending a significant amount of time working in a Korean school it is easy to quickly lose sight of some of the daily oddities you encounter. You just come to accept them as normal. But here are a few interesting events that really stuck with me.

Every six months to a year schools have a day of open classes where parents are invited to come in and observe their children’s classes during certain periods. This is a day that Korean teachers dread! This was truly driven home for me during the most recent day of open classes. Because I had the period before lunch free, I was heading down to the cafeteria from my fourth floor office with one of my colleagues. As we descended the stairs I could not figure out why she kept pausing at each floor and hopping up on her toes. It quickly became apparent when, during one of her hopping episodes, she spotted two parents on the floor below ours. This necessitated a rapid trip one stairwell over before we could finish the descent for lunch.

Teacher-parent relations look completely different in Korea. Basically, teachers will avoid talking to parents unless it is absolutely necessary. There seems to be a few different reasons for this, but a large part of it lies in the fact that teachers in Korea are seen as having a major role in raising kids here. Teachers are concerned that when they bring issues to the parents (even things like students caught smoking) the parents will simply blame the teachers for the problem and take the issue to the principal.

Which brings me to my next point. I was sitting in my office during a spare block a few months back when one of my office mates came in and said something to the home room teacher across from me. She looked at the messenger with big eyes and then thumped her forehead onto her desk. Luckily my co-teacher was present to explain what had occurred. Apparently, the vice-principal had been spotted heading down the hallway where this teacher’s homeroom (a notoriously difficult grade two class) was located. During this period they have math class taught by a young female teacher whom they regularly chew up and spit out. Most of us have simply learned to block out the sounds of all hell breaking loose two hallways over during these classes. But it’s a different thing when the administration is involved. While her head was still on her desk we heard the volume from her classroom spike and then sudden silence. Her head came up, she went white as a sheet, and bolted out of the office. Five minutes later the vp came looking for her. Clearly she had bolted away from her classroom.

Main message? Teachers live in fear of the principal and vice-principal who, incidentally, have almost zero contact with students except in the most dire circumstances. Now, I know from talking to other teachers that this varies school to school, and fleeing is not common practice. I have also been informed that some vice-principals can be especially difficult to work with/for. Regardless, teachers generally do not enjoy interacting with the principal or vice-principal. In turn, the administrators have the ability, and often the will, to make teacher’s lives, both at and away from school, hell.

So, at the end of the day, teachers run wary of both parents and principals. Of course everyone runs scared of us. Speaking English is scary!