Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Weekend in Gyeongju

This is part 2 of my Gyeongju weekend (again, sorry for the delay. Rearranged scheduling and my own brush with sickness left me inattentive to my writing). This takes place after the EPIK conference Thursday and Friday. My boyfriend Scott also wrote about the weekend on http://www.fourteenhoursaway.blogspot.com/, so check him out for additional perspective and photos.

Gyeongju is best known for having been the capital of the Silla dynasty, and because of this, it might be one of the most interesting places to tour in the country. It is absolutely full of history and interesting things to see at every turn, starting with the burial mounds.

On Friday after the conference, Scott, Katie, and I decided that the best place to start would be to walk around and see these mounds. They are quite literally everywhere. Gyeongju is like a giant graveyard. They spread out over the whole city, hundreds of them, sometimes in their own designated parks, other times sitting alone on a city block. Some of them are double mounds, for a king and queen pair. They are similar to the Egyptian pyramids, the rising markers for the tombs of kings- only in earth and grass.

Being that there are so many of them, we started to wonder how they managed to find all of the dirt to pile up. My theory is that Gyeongju really used to be several feet higher.

After a long day of walking, we returned to our motel to see another ancient site: a well stocked VHS library and our very own VHS player!

Saturday morning, we rented bikes to get around. One of the wonderful things about Gyeongju is that most of the historical sites are within a reasonable travel distance. This is different from Andong, where everything is spread out. Biking is therefore highly accommodated, with additional bike lanes or wider sidewalks. The river that runs through Gyeongju has the best of these, so we could bike along the whole river without having run ins with walkers or in line skaters (who also had their own designated roads).

Biking around the city was beautiful, and with all of the traffic congested with tour buses and cars, it was really the least stressful and best way to absorb all of the scenery.

Many of the most beautiful roads weren't even accessible by car.

Early on Saturday morning, Scott, Katie and I took off early on our newly acquired bikes to see more tombs and National treasure #31, Cheomseongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia. Remarkably, still intact from its first construction (around 632-647).

Soon after, we were joined by our dearest most wonderful best friend Andrew (Do you feel satisfied now Andrew?), and formed a kind of cycling posse:

We were definitely the coolest on the streets, though the competition was fierce:

Our first stop was the Gyeongju National Museum.

It is home to the divine bell of King Seondeok, which is the oldest known bell in Korea and has a sound that promises to "stir the deepest emotions." Alas, we didn't get to hear it ring.

Being the capital of the Silla dynasty meant a good look at the treasures of ancient royalty, which prominently featured comma-shaped stones and accents of very thinly pressed and etched gold.

Near the museum was the Imhaejeon lake and gardens, which was originally erected as a site to raise rare plants and animals for the palace, as well as hold banquets for foreign dignitaries. The whole place was very circular- with an island in the lake, and a round pathway around the lake.

Our biking journey carried us south and east of the city into the countryside, where we found the Bunhwansa stone pagoda next to a small temple. It's the largest I've seen in width, and apparently it used to be about 7 or 9 stories high. But, like everything in this country, it too was destroyed by the Japanese and had to be reformed.

While I love all of the pagodas and temples, I was most fascinated by this bell ringer. Bells here are rung by fixing a log on two chains, pulling it back, and letting it fly forward to hit the bell. This one appeared to be retired. His face does look like its flown into a giant iron wall one too many times.

Saturday was wrapped up with an intense battle of pool. The pool hall even provided bright pink or black spandex gloves, for the truly serious players. We were.

Sunday was reserved for the biggest draw to Gyeongju- the UNESCO designated world heritage site, Bulguksa temple. It was the center of Buddhism during the Silla dynasty, but was burnt down by the Japanese and had to be restored.

Its entrance is now very well guarded.

The restoration was remarkable though, and it is one of the biggest and most beautiful temples in the country.

Unfortunately, this meant it was crawling with tourists. Not that I can blame them- after all, we were there too. Though the copious amount of vendors selling corn dogs and plastic dung-on-a-stick toys on the surrounding temple lawns did damper the serenity a bit. It was amazing to be in such a heavily populated place after the relative calm of cultural sites in Andong. Though inside all of the temple buildings, a natural reverence was maintained- especially in one large central structure referred to as the "Hall of Whispers." Shoes off, no cameras, and total silence. Even in a place crawling with noisy people, there were ways to find a soothing sense of harmony.

("Keep off")

Up the mountain from the temple was Seokguram Grotto, the home to a giant stone Buddha carved from granite and housed in an enormous chamber, surrounded by the carvings of eight guardian gods. Photos weren't allowed- but Scott found a good one from the Internet on his blog.

The view from the top of the grotto was extraordinary.

We ended our weekend with Gyeongju's signature food- sam bap, which literally means rice wrapped in lettuce. It was more like an enormous number of side dishes from whole fish, to soup, to various vegetables and mildly spicy pork; the most I've seen on one table since I came to Korea. It was delicious, once I found a place to start.

Friday, 23 October 2009


Well, the intention was to finish my Gyeongju blog post during my free time at school today since Monday's classes were already planned. However, due to the H1N1 outbreak, my school has been canceled on Monday and Tuesday so I had to use that time to plan for Wednesday's classes. Tomorrow I have an English camp in the morning, a Korean wedding to attend in the afternoon, and a 3 way birthday bash to celebrate in the evening (Katie, Alice, and Andrew!). On the other hand, I'll have plenty of time come Monday! I just had to rework my schedule a little bit, but I'm not neglecting my writing on purpose. ^^;

Sunday, 18 October 2009

EPIK Conference in Gyeongju

I feel like I went into hibernation this week after making it through last week. Anyway, I'm awake now. This is part 1 of my 2 part four day weekend in Gyeongju (I'll work on the sightseeing half of it tomorrow). Thursday and Friday were spent at an in-service training conference for EPIK.

Thursday morning, Scott and I woke up at 7:25, just 5 minutes before we were meant to leave town. We also hadn't packed. Luckily, when we gathered with our co-teachers and Katie and her co-teacher fifteen minutes later, they were not deterred from first getting breakfast. Korean breakfast isn't anything like a western breakfast, so we had a traditional fare of soup, rice, and kimchi.

We arrived almost an hour late at the hotel after a 3 hour drive, but luckily that starting hour was designated for signing in, and being nearly last meant our name badges were easy to find. I heard a lot of people talking to friends about their awkward small talk or silences with their co-teachers on the drive down. For me it was a five word conversation: "Sara, take a nap" and my response,"OK." Taebun understands me, especially at 7:30am.

Because Scott, Katie and I have already been teaching for a long time, we weren't quite sure what to expect out of this conference. It was mostly for the new EPIK teachers who arrived in September and those of us that had the late orientation back at the end of March. There had already been one just before Scott and I arrived.

The first day ran from 11 to 7:30. Two lectures, a demonstration on co-teaching, and a"Discussion About Co-Teaching Styles and Interpersonal Relationships," which oddly was the only of the four where they split up the Native and Korean teachers into separate rooms. It ended with a fabulous eclectic buffet dinner to satisfy Western and Korean diets. Mostly I devoured raw salmon, which is surprisingly hard to find here.

The second day ran from 7:30 to 2, with two interactive lectures and an open forum. The primary target seemed to be for a newer teaching audience, but it was a nice refresher for me. One of the speakers had been in Korea for eight years, so I couldn't pretend to have her insight, so there was a lot yet to soak in. Particularly using warm up and short transition periods of time to incorporate improv and movement, even within large classes like mine. I also felt very useful at the conference during discussions, because I came with a lot of ideas from experience so far, and was able to pass those along to newer teachers; like making group forming into a game, and planning for classes with mixed degrees of English literacy. Likewise, the newer teachers had some fresh opinions that I could benefit from, which was helpful after doing my own routine for so long.

The target of the training seemed to be directed at better co-teaching, but I was a little surprised because the tables were set up in most of the conference rooms in threes, leaving every other co-teaching pair split up. Scott, and Katie are incredibly lucky in our co-teaching assignments, so this didn't really deter us from doing discussions and activities. However, for those who struggled with their Korean co-teachers, it appeared to me like they could, sadly, segregate themselves quite easily.

My favorite part of the conference was Thursday night, when Scott, Katie and I stayed in to teach our co-teachers how to play Texas Hold'em. We had to improvise, so while the Koreans debated over which flavor of squid jerky and mixed nuts the would buy, the three of us grabbed some beer, some highlighters and a couple packs of toothpicks to turn into poker chips. Back in the hotel room, while Scott went over the basics, Katie and I labored over marking hundreds of toothpicks. This was the result (set 1 of 6):

Of course, into the second hour we had to continue coloring the extra blank ones as the minimum bet raised and chips were traded in. In the end, we had a pretty awesome travel poker chip set.

It was a pretty epic game. They picked it up really fast, and Scott's co teacher Hyeon-beom almost put me out early with his raises before the flop and mythically good hands. But there was a lot of great luck. Somehow the whole thing was bizarrely magical, with rivers like this:

Whenever toothpicks changed hands, we turned it into a battle of the schools. Scott's Dongbu Elementary was stealing my Kilju money, or Katie's Bokju (sorry Katie if I butchered that spelling) Elementary money would change hands between them. Of course, I was responsible for slaughtering Taebun in a face off between us that made him the first to go out.

Although it wasn't officially a part of the conference, the conference gave us the rare opportunity to hang out with our co-teachers. The Korean teachers especially are so busy with extra school projects in addition to managing the ease of our lives here, that it seems so seldom that we get to sit down and have fun outside of the classroom. While most of the foreigners all went out together to the locals bars after the lectures and dinner was over, tempted as we were to join them, it seemed to be more exciting to see our co-teachers corrupted by the forbidden world of gambling. Well, with toothpicks anyway.

Friday, 9 October 2009


즐거운 한글날 되세요!

Monday, 5 October 2009

The "Right" Way to Walk

South Korea has officially changed its policy on walking. It used to be that people would walk on the left, even though driving is on the right. However, I showed up at school to find this poster all over the school:

The policy has changed, and now everyone is instructed to keep to the right side when walking. And just look how happy everyone is; how green the grass is on this side of the path! Although I've been walking on the right since I got here without much trouble, so it's mostly a formality I think.

Along with the sign, students were given the task of changing all the arrows on the stairs, and to help everyone adjust, 6th grade hall monitors with sashes now direct traffic on each floor in the morning in case of any confusion.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Andrew's Concert Video

My friend Andrew uploaded a video on YouTube that he took from the concert I wrote about two weeks ago. It's of 2NE1 performing "Fire." Don't worry, it stabilizes after the first few seconds- who can blame him for a sudden outburst of excited dancing? You can hear me screaming periodically throughout. It's the best video I've seen of the performance, so check it out!