Monday, 24 August 2009

From Busan to Hahoe Village: My Parents in Korea

With both of my parents come and gone from Korea, I'm now beginning to slip back into my regular daily lifestyle. I'm back to school, with brain clicked back into teacher-mode. Although now my days are less busy and I can return to my somewhat neglected blog, I really miss having my parents here. It was exciting being able to show them around my new country, and sharing Korea with my parents made me feel closer to it as a way of life, not someplace fully separate from everything I left in America.

My mom came two weeks before my dad, right at the start of the English camp at my school. Her first glimpse of my life probably couldn't have been a very exciting one from a touring perspective, between jet lag and my franticness in planning my lessons, but having her see my life and teaching gave me an extra boost of pride in what I do. The next week you already know- we went to Jeju and had more of a vacation experience.

As soon as our flight landed back in Daegu from Jeju on that Friday, mom and I set off on a bus to Busan to get my dad the following day. Well, that was the plan until mom remembered that his flight came in Sunday and not Saturday, so we wound up with an extra day in Busan.
Being a port town, and a very large one, one of the first images going in is a fascinating number of large shipping containers stacked for what feels like miles. Not knowing what to expect, our arrival at the bus station gave us a fair bit of warning, as we were handed an English local paper with a headline about making Busan more foreigner friendly. Two swindling cab drivers put a small crack in my pure good opinion about Korean hospitality, the first and only two times I've encountered this in over five months, but it's only one city. Plus, the charms of Busan far outweighed the drawbacks so I would like to go back again sometime.

Mom and I had a lot of fun shopping around the city, which we didn't have that much time to do when we were in Seoul, and I was able to eat at American restaurants for the first time in months. We also ventured out to Gwangalli beach after catching wind that a Proleague Starcraft tournament was taking place there and I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Busan was similar to Seoul, but smaller and easier to get around on foot. Although I have the navigation of Seoul's subway system down easily because of the nation-wide use of the T-Money scan card for transport, Busan uses a local system so it's not as tourist-friendly. However, it forced us to walk around and soak in more of the city instead of just leaping on a subway.

On one such occasion, mom and I found ourselves wandering down a back ally and came across a middle-aged man seated with a half watermelon and a large knife. Between chews and his otherwise serious disposition, his immediate reaction was to cut off two big chunks and offer them to us as we passed by. So you might say that the regular locals left a better taste in our mouths than the taxis in the end.

Dad seemed to like Busan too, but I think his enjoyment was derived from a different source than shopping and walking around...

Wolyeonggyo Bridge

One of our first things to do as a family was head over to the moonlight bridge, which was the first site outside of downtown and my school that I saw in Andong so it seemed fitting. Although, Mom and I had been here before Dad came, having taken a very indirect route through the small mountain behind Scott's school that would, theoretically, lead to the bridge. It ended in us getting lost and traversing through overgrowth and spider webs, weaving around burial mounds (though careful not to disturb them by getting too close) along the mountainside, and eventually coming out next to a very active-sounding house. We had to creep through their property and find our way down to the road near the bridge from there, and after that figured the best way to come this next time would be through the main road.

Although the last time I was there the cherry blossoms were blooming, I almost preferred the look of it on this visit because everything was more green and vibrant. The fall and winter should be stunning too, I think.

After crossing over the bridge we checked out the cultural museum, which is split between the museum itself with artifacts and displays modeling the customs of Korea and Andong itself, and a number of historic buildings outside of the museum that trail up the hill nearby- all moved to that location due to the construction of the dam to escape being buried under the river.

Chung Yang San

Then the mountain. Chung Yang San. I recall after the first time I went there with my school, coming home and saying to Scott that "I have just been to the most beautiful place that we'll never go see, because I'm not climbing up there again." But we certainly did.
Both me and my parents and Scott and his set out. The plan was to find, to the best of my knowledge, the original pathway up the mountain that would lead first to the temple and then to the sky bridge. We found a map that showed us three possible entrances. Only the two furthest from the town where the bus dropped us off led to the temple, and since I spent my first trip there sleeping in the back of a teacher's car and trying not to drool all over one of my co-teachers' shoulders, it came down to a 50-50 guess. Naturally, I selected the wrong one of the two, which turned out to be a very steep driving path for cars up to the temple, and generally used only to walk down. Luckily, the rain held out until we made it to the temple for shelter.
Not having checked the weather beforehand, we were a little ill-prepared the rain, but a vendor counter under the shelter of a raised pavilion was stocked with rain ponchos so we all remained in good spirits.
While we were waiting, the temple supplied all of us taking cover under the pavilion with a tray piled high with dokk (soft rice cakes), these covered in a plain white powder or a peanut powder.
A short distance from our shelter was the large shared temple water basin for getting a drink, so with food and water and great company, it was a welcome break from climbing and the perfect way to experience the communal atmosphere of the temple.
Now, on my first visit, I recall huffing along behind the energetic Mrs. Shim, with serious doubts about my survival. This time I had apparently gained a great deal of stamina, because from my place in front of the line looking back, I could see the same echos of slow-down-or-I'll-consider-pushing-you-off-this-mountain in the eyes of our families.

Actually all of us did very well, and it seemed the strain of climbing wasn't as bad as I'd envisioned. If my parents were having a hard time I would never have guessed, because they were cheerful the whole time. Even though the rain came and went in bursts, added on to the climb itself. It was the first time I'd done anything quite like it with my parents. It seemed everyone handled it much more adeptly that I did on my first trip.

We finally made it to the sky bridge. Because of the rain, a thick mist hung around the mountain peaks, billowing in and out of the cables of the bridge as the rain began to pick up again. Before crossing, however, there was a matter of business to attend to for Dad's fellows back in Ohio...

("O" "H" "I" "O" the signature group stance of the OSU fan around the globe)

Crossing the bridge was the most fun of the entire journey up. It was ironic that I should be up there with my mom, both having said that I wasn't planning to go back, and having touched on in my blog that my mother would probably have a heart attack if she had been there.

Well cross it she did, and with her first step she cried out, to her horror, "It moves!" Once that had been accepted, a new discovery was made: halfway across the bridge, a glass bottom had been installed for about a ten step span. I'll leave her to speak for herself on that one.

With a last look back as the mist began to to devour the bridge, I think my mom made her peace with the thing.
I hadn't known the path beyond the bridge, which turned out to be longer (about 7km) and far steeper than the path up. This time, there wasn't a temple to stop at- we had planned for this route back because the entrance to it was the closest to the village.

Where my legs felt pretty normal the whole way up the mountain, they felt beaten and betrayed the whole way down. We must have been a very interesting sight making our way down that path. We all seemed to have a different approach. At any given time or terrain, one of us might be walking backward, forward, sideways, in a serpentine path, or clinging to another for support.
Treacherous as it was, there was no denying the beauty of the place, especially in those rare moments where the path would even out for a few feet or there would be a break in the treeline (though glimpses outside of the tree cover made us feel like we hadn't gotten any farther down, far us as we were for a long time).

We walked away victorious, and this time I can change my tune a bit and say I'd love to go back.

After braving the mountain, we settled on tamer exploration the next day and kept our discoveries within the city of Andong. Unbenownst to me for the last five months, Andong has had an underground museum on the edge of our park, in what I had overlooked as another pavilion.

The whole place hinges on technology- without historical artifacts, but is very cool and hands on. Walking in, we registered at a computer and were given ID cards that were synced with our names and email addresses. Certain areas involved scanning the badge so the computer could greet you by name, or send a file to your email address. One station was an interactive computer "print block." After picking a traditional woodblock picture or perhaps an old scroll or proverb, then picking an ink color, we had to take up a pad to dab the screen so that it "applied ink" to the print block, then once finished it stamped it out and sent it to our emails.

Other stations included a large step-activated map on the floor to zoom in and out of Andong's historic places, a stage to learn and project yourself into the Andong mask dances, a small electronic encyclopedia of artifacts that could be flipped through using only your outstretched hand in the air as a mouse through motion sensors, and even a DDR style game where your victory ensured a princess' safe passage to freedom across a river on the backs of Andong citizens.

One of my favorite things to do with my parents was eat. One of the best parts of Korea is the food, for sure. Dad I wasn't worried about, knowing his enjoyment of spicy foods, and that he'll try everything at least once. Initially I was worried about my mom, knowing her picky style of eating that leaves out onions and peppers, and Korean food is mostly doused with a healthy supply of red pepper paste. Indeed, she had planned to hate it too, and brought with her a stock of chocolate chip granola bars and a few sticks of beef jerky to give her the protein to survive the month. Both of us were mistaken. She loved the food, especially the spiciest food Andong has to offer- their specialty, Jim dok (very spicy marinated chicken with noodles and vegetables). Happily, when she left she gave me over half a box of uneaten granola bars.

Hahoe Village

It's funny, Andong's main attraction is Hahoe villiage, a traditional preserved folk villiage just outside of the main city, but in five months it's about the only big Andong cultural site I hadn't seen. However, this made it all the more enjoyable to experience something new for the first time with my parents.

Hahoe rests on a penninsula-shaped curve of land along the Nakdong river, the same river that flows down through the Andong dam and past my house. It's been very fortunate as well, in that it wasn't wiped out like many such places during the Korean war, so it preserves the feel for the old way of life.

Hahoe isn't a relic town on display, however. It's still an active community where people live their lives, and in that sense it feels both truely authentic and slightly unsettling. I wasn't sure, peering through a gate to a house courtyard, if I should wander in to get a closer look, or if it would be bothersome.

But the sense of that concern faded quite quickly after a bit of wandering and taking it in. The people living there are clearly very accustomed to visitors, as people from around the country come every every day, especially on weekends. Informational boards in Korean and English mark the more famous houses, so the village is very accomodating and very proud of their legacy.
As the villiage curves along the river, so does the whole town seem to curve and flow in everything from the paths to the roofs. There was no one plan or structure to the whole of the place, and manuvering through wide and narrow roadways, in and out of courtyards, it lost the sense of rigidity modern towns adopt in their network design.

The most stunning sight of Hahoe, to me, is a 600 year old zelkova tree tucked away down a single path in a central part of the village, home to a fertility goddess. With branches the size of tree trunks, it appeared to be a cluster of several trees in passing on the other side of the wall. All around it are lengths of rope, twisted with paper messages and wishes. Mom wrote down a message requesting grandchildren. I wrote a message counteracting that and tied it around hers. That was close.

It was the perfect way to close out the week with both of my parents, in a very quite and relaxing place where we could soak in Korea's culture and walk together without the feeling rushed or burdened by time.

Just a short ways outside of the village is a mask museum (surrounded by countless vendors and plenty of good food), which was a great escape from the heat. I had thought, perhaps, the museum would be devoted to the Hahoe masks alone, but it's split into three parts: Korea, Asia, and World masks. I hadn't quite known the changing degree of masks throughout Korea, for the Hahoe masks are so iconic that I had just assumed that they were the most recognized style.

Though we did indeed get a closer look at the Hahoe mask tradition, we also got to see the differences from region to region- which couldn't have been more different.

Hahoe masks were mostly made from wood, but others employed a wide range of other materials and fibers such as paper, hair, plant material, and gourds.

Farewell to Father

After everything, it was back to Busan with us for a goodbye to both my dad and Scott's parents, who ironically ended up on the same Northwest flight just a few rows apart. We didn't waste the day on travel alone though, and ended the trip with nore bang!

Dosan Seowon

My mom stayed for a few extra days, and although most of them were spent getting back into the routine that the end of summer demanded I reaclumate to, my mom and I did swing out to Dosan Seowon on one of the days. I had wanted to take her there, knowing her interest in Confucian culture.

This time the academy was undergoing a bit of restoration on a few buildings, but even the construction beams didn't betray the lines that the structures set out to achieve; they seemed to fit well together and didn't appear too invasive.

Mom seemed to fit well here, and was very serene, like it was perfectly her element. Much more suited to her than treacherous bridges, anyway.

I miss them both.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Ashley's Wedding

I just wanted to post a quick congratulations to my cousin Ashley and her husband Dan on their wedding day. The sun is rising here, which probably means that they are done with it and winding down for the night at their reception. She's the first of my cousins to get married, and it would have been delightful to be there and see it. I wish them all the best, and the most I can do is extend my congratulations through my blog right now- but perhaps I can be there next year to celebrate their first anniversary.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Only in Korea

So my mom just called me to tell me that she would be late to my apartment because she met a woman on the street who grabbed her wrist and led her off to her home. The woman doesn't speak English, and my mom doesn't speak Korean, but she is slicing up peaches and they are apparently having a great time. Only here would I think of this as being a perfectly normal occurrence.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Vacationing in Jeju

For the first week of my official vacation, my mom and I flew off with Scott and his parents to Jeju-do; an island province off the southern coast of mainland Korea. It attracts foreign tourists, but also a high concentration of Korean vacationers and honeymooners. Koreans weren't allowed to travel outside of the country until the mid 1980's, so it has a long history of being the exotic travel destination within Korean boundaries. It was once home to several active volcanoes, but now the large inactive craters just decorate the horizon. The largest of these is Hallasan, located in the center of the island and is both the largest mountain and home to the only natural lake in South Korea. Other smaller (the one below) craters sit on the outside borders.

The rocks created created by the volcanos have also contributed artistically to the residents, and perhaps the most signature image of Jeju is of the dol hareubangs (literally, "stone grandfather"). These little guys are everywhere: along roadsides, at entrances to paths and buildings, or set upon hills. I started to regard them as silent but charming tour guides.

We arrived at a somewhat ironic time. Right as we left Andong to go to Jeju, I learned that George W Bush had been in Jeju and had just left to go to Andong. I can't decide if I'm disappointed or if it was fate.

The Hyatt Regency and It's Beaches

Instead of staying in Jeju city on the north end where we flew in, we booked a hotel on the southern coast at the Hyatt Regency.

It reminded me of a cruise ship on the outside, and on the inside all of the rooms centered around a big courtyard.

The pond is home to many fish, and if you get close enough to the edge of the pond they will swim up to you, stick up their mouths, and make sucking motions in case you have food for them.

It was the perfect place to mentally get away from teaching for a few days. At night we left the patio door open to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. The twenty or so bug bites I incurred as a result were so worth it.

The Hyatt has two main beaches next to it. The first is large and sandy, and attracts the most people to it because it's between two hotels. The other beach was more my style, rocks everywhere and the sand is darker with grains of black and orange mixed in. Since Jeju was once highly volcanic, most of the rocks were formed by lava, and are covered into little speckled holes and depressions.

At night, Scott and I went down as the sun was setting and the tide was coming in. We drew little pictures in the sand at various depths to see how long it took for the water to engulf them. This eventually turned into a battle between us and the ocean, and the pictures turned into written taunts to see if the ocean was strong enough to erase them.

Further down this beach, the rocks become more concentrated, presumably because the cliff that shadows it has dropped bits of itself. On our last day, my mom and I decided to do a bit of beach combing for interesting rocks. As I walked down toward the shore, I was alerted to a crunch under my feet. When I looked down, I saw dozens of little snail shells bobbling along in a mad migration away from me. The expanse of rocks from the cliff to the water line is so dense; it forms several little communities that I started paying more careful attention to.

Yeomiji Botanical Gardens

During our first full day we all went to the Yeomiji Botanical Gardens, which is hailed for it's diverse garden themes and thousands of plant species. It has a large greenhouse in the center, which is surrounded by different garden styles: French, Italian, Sunken, Korean, and Jeju Native. The Jeju garden was a wild tangle of plants, and it led to the more visibly defined Korean garden, with signature intricately painted gazebo and large square lily pad pools.

The Italian garden's best feature was a large fountain that I could walk under or take steps to a small area above, which gave me a nice view of the French garden.
Inside the greenhouse, it is also sectioned off by garden type: Cactus, Jungle, Flower, and Tropical Fruit.

The flower garden was by far the simplest, with its pockets of flowers standing out on their own against largely green leafy backgrounds.

In addition to the plant life, the gardens were helped along creatively by a number of statues. Some, like this one in the flower garden, were worked naturally in to the curves of the surrounding life.

Others were a bit more lighthearted in setting the mood of the garden location- dinosaurs in the jungle garden, or this one in the tropical fruits garden.

Cheonjeyeon Falls

Near the botanical gardens is a bridge that leads to the Cheonjeyeon Falls. The bridge is covered with images of seven nymphs, handmaidens to the Emperor of Heaven, traveling to the falls to bathe.

There are three falls, although the first is the most tranquil with a large unbelievably blue pool. The water seems to come magically through the rocks itself, though on rainier days it would also roll over the flat space above the rock wall.

Sanbanggulsa Grotto

Sanbanggulsa Grotto was about a 45 minute bus ride east along the coast from the Jungmun resort complex. It's a Buddhist temple and shrine winding up the lower regions of Sanbang mountain, with a breathtaking view of coastline below at every level.

Apart from the view, it was the most interesting Buddhist temple area I've visited so far. Most of them are very simple, with most of the extravagance contained inside the temple buildings except for the painted roofs and possibly a small shrine outside. Sanbanggulsa is a true grotto, and is a cluster of buildings and statues of stone, ceramic, and marble.

Not everything matched perfectly, but it was like walking through an antique shop; once everything could be taken in, it was easy to be drawn to certain smaller items tucked away in the nooks of the grotto.

The largest statue in the grotto is large golden Buddha- my head came about midway up his seated knees. There is only one other gold Buddha in the grotto, which I passed on the way to this one; it appeared to be a younger version of Buddha, seated in a thinking-man pose, while this larger one was Buddha in his characteristic, divine, seated pose.

From the busiest bulk of the grotto, stairs continued to wind up the side of the mountain. The stairs ended at a more simply laid shrine set into an open cavern. Water dripped from cracks along the ceiling, and collected in a trough below for drinking.

At first I wasn't sure if I should be taking pictures, because there was a monk sitting peacefully at the entrance and another older man standing watch over the place. However, when the older man saw me sneaking a few shots, he grabbed my wrist and led me up the stairs at the back of the cavern and pointed to the view. If I wanted to take pictures, he wanted to make sure I had the most choice vantage point.

After leaving the grotto, a short walk led us to investigate a sizable stone box on a hill.

This is just one of many such structures around the island, and once acted as a lookout for enemy ships. The posted guard would light a fire to send smoke signals across the island in the event he spotted something (or run on foot to the next lookout during rainy days). A summon to the Rohirrim, perhaps?
Teddy Bear Museum
After all of the walking of the week, my mom and I chose to visit one of the island's many strange museums, and the Teddy Bear museum sounded too adorable to pass up. I wasn't sure if it was going to be a gimmick when we first went in; I might have expected all of the quality of an American tourist trap off the highway, but it was actually very interesting and true to the the subject area.
It had three galleries- the first was a historical look at Teddy Bears throughout the decades with a collection of iconic bears from the original Teddy, to Paddington Bear, to Winnie the Pooh and Beanie Babies. It also displayed a number of Teddy Bear substitutes for famous figures like the Beatles, Queen Elizabeth, and Elvis- as well as great moments in history like the moon landing and the fall of the Berlin wall.

The second gallery was of great art redone by teddy bears: The Creation of Man, The Kiss, the Mona Lisa, and many others. The third gallery was devoted to saving the polar bears, which I suspect is a changing gallery, and had several displays of teddy polar bears trying to escape from extinction by trying such methods as moving to warmer climates or painting themselves at panda bears.
Perhaps if I can come back, I'll try out the miniature theme park, the chocolate museum, or the park of over a thousand goblin statues. Jeju is certainly full of exotic island beauty and curious oddities, and it would take me more than a week to explore everything new and interesting.