Saturday, February 24, 2007

Korea: "The Land of the Morning Calm"

February 17-24, 2007.

After our usual last minute packing, we headed to the airport to catch our midnight flight to Seoul. We arrived at Inchon International Airport at 5am local time, picked up our bags and went to the AVIS counter to wait for it to open so we could get our rental car.

While on the flight over, we realized that Matt's international license was well passed the expiry date but thought we could get by (he had brought his HK and UK license too). But nope. The guy immediately picked up on it and refused to rent us the car. Feeling rather dejected, not to mention exhausted having had no sleep all night, we mulled over our options. We really didn't want to have to switch to travelling by public transport with all of our camping gear, it would be just too cumbersome to get on and off trains and buses with heavy packs and such.

In the end, we caught a flight direct to Jeju-do, the small island off the southern tip of the mainland, where we had intended to drive to that day anyway. Once we landed at Jeju city, we tried our luck with a local car rental company and either we looked like good-to-honest people or they just desperately wanted to get some business, but a car we got! Old and a bit dirty with only a tape deck, we didn't complain...much. One can only take Korean opera music on the radio for so long. We ended up buying two cheap cassette tapes of 80's songs at some reststop on the highway. Not my first choice, but at least it provided much needed singing relief during the long stretches.

We spent a few days on Jeju, commonly known as the 'honeymoon island' for Korean newlyweds. We visited the Manjanggul Cave (longest lava tube in the world), camped at Hallasan National Park, wanted to climb Hallasan peak (highest dormant volcano in South Korea at 1950 metres) but was told the summit had been closed for years so decided to forego it this time, climbed "Sunrise Peak" instead at midday on the east coast at Ilchulbong (see pic with Mt. Hallasan in background), went down under in a yellow submarine (see pic of scuba man), and got a kick out of "Mysterious Road" where basically it is an optical illusion where the road seems to be going up, where in fact it is slanting downwards. Being easily amused people, we spent quite some time there confusing our senses, rolling bottles down (or up) the road, walking backwards, pouring water to see which way it would flow - all captured vigilently on video.

Now, the food. Korean food ranges from hot to extremely hot. There is no such thing as bland. What's great about a Korean meal is the little dishes of food you get with your main dish. Koreans are proud of their food and what's more, it seems everywhere you turn, every one has an ongoing love affair with their national dish: kimchi. Traditionally made to preserve veggies and ensure proper nutrition during harsh winters, it comes in hundreds of differents types, and it is bloody spicy! There is even a kimchi museum in Seoul but we had to prioritize and time didn't allow us to make the trip there, perhaps next time. In addition to being served spicy kimchi with every meal, there is usally some type of cold seaweed in a special sauce, tofu cubes, other pickled veggies, spiced-up bean sprouts, and hot soup.

Here is a picture of Matt seated at our first meal in Korea, just outside Jeju's capital city. It had been a cold and very wet day so a hot meal was just what we needed to refuel us. He's chowing down on a pindaettok, a type of pancake fried with either meat or seafood. I had the "regular meal" which included a whole fish fried in hot peppers and other spices, a bowl of Korean rice and the usual array of little dishes. Not so 'regular' in my books, but totally delicious!

Below is a picture of one of my all-time favourite dishes: bibimbap, a medley of veggies, fried egg and rice, all seasoned with a shot of red pepper paste. Yum!

After seeing Jeju, we took the ferry over to the mainland, to Wando city port, where we drove up the east coast. Surprisingly enough, most signs were in Korean and English which made navigation a lot easier. However, there is some sort of unorganized madness with Korean intersections. It isn't the usual 4-way junction that is the norm in most countries; instead, the majority of junctions have at least 5 streets spiking out of the centre. This causes problems when you don't know which lane you're supposed to be in, in the first place!

We crossed over inland and drove through Woraksan National Park and Sognisan National Park. In the end, we decided to continue driving a bit further and camped at Sobaeksan National Park on a bed of pine needles beside an icy river.

Matt got an awesome fire going (see pic of him lighting it up beside the frozen river) while i cooked up some dinner. After inhaling our curry and rice, potato stew and chocolate pudding, we huddled next to the fire to ward off the cold. Hugging my legs and getting lost in the trance of the flames, only after a long while did i notice the smell of rubber coming from my feet! We quickly poured water on the rubber soles and the holes sealed rather nicely - phew. They were the only pair of shoes i brought!

We woke up the next morning to frost covering our tent and the ground. After packing up, we headed up the mountain trail, a good 6+ km climb to the summit. We didn't expect the trail to be icy (see pic of Matt on trail) and so progress was slow. We stopped at one of the mid-way resthouses where an old woman was selling boiled tofu/fish-like snacks with soup. Apparently she lives in the hut all year round. We also bought a bowl of the local brew: dongdongju, creamy and milky in colour and texture and with a low alcohol content. A bit tight for time, we decided not to continue the 2 km up to the summit and turned around for a slow and slippery descent.

That evening, continuing south on the highway, we stopped and stayed at the Jirye Artist's Colony, one of few traditional villages with hanok, houses constructed using the traditional Korean style of architecture, still preserved and used like it was hundreds of years ago (see pic of the houses from the side gate). Just 45 minutes east of Andong city, to get there you must drive through some of the most spectacular scenery, up narrow and winding roads and finally through the mountain pass which awards you with a breathtaking view of the valley below.

Mr. Jin and his wife, the owners of the houses, had to relocate after the river was damed and the village flooded. They entertain visitors and tourists but their main aim is to educate Koreans on the traditional Korean lifestyle. What we found particularly unique is the fact that they still heat the houses with a real ondol, underfloor heating, by keeping the fire stoked underneath the floor (see pic of fire under our room). With walls made out of paper, you sleep on thin mattresses with thick duvet covers, trapping the heat that rises from below. This is a must try, a guarantee for one of the coziest sleeps you'll ever have!

The next morning, we had a go at splitting wood from the humongous wood pile (see lumberjack Matt), followed by a quick stroll down towards the river, and after a delicious breakfast, we were off to Pusan city to catch our 11 hour overnight ferry back to Jeju island on the Cozy Island (see pic of the huge vessel).

Upon returning the rental car, we flew back to Seoul and that night we treated ourselves to a traditional Korean banquet followed by a traditional dance and music performance (See us seated in front of some of the dance troupe).

The next day, our last one, we joined the USO (United Services Organization) tour to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). It was more interesting than i had anticipated. Our guides, a personable North Korean refugee and a chatty American soldier, took us to Camp Bonifas on the southern side of the DMZ and then to the Joint Security Area of Panmunjeom. After lunch, we toured the 3rd Tunnel which was dug by the North Koreans, who had hoped to use it to stage a surprise attack on the South. Currently there are four tunnels which have been uncovered but there are several more which are thought to exist. See pic of guards patrolling the DMZ and Matt doing his Border-Guard-Impersonation.

I'm reading Simon Winchester's Korea: a Walk Through the Land of Miracles right now, where he embarked on a walking adventure from the south in Jeju to Seoul, meeting the most friendly people and hearing about their lives, thereby piecing together the patches and tiles that make up one of the most well-preserved East Asian countries, in terms of heritage and culture. So far it's a great read, and it's helping me see more deeply into the brief glimpse of the Korea I saw.

We are already talking about planning a trip to North Korea - who knows how much longer a visit to the mysterious, isolated North will still be available to tourists? However, visas apparently take at least a couple of months to obtain, while they go through your CV and do a thorough background check on all your employers, etc. The whole process of it all makes it that much more interesting to go and see what it is really like. Like everything else, we shall see.

We're back home now, both of us just getting over a minor cold, taste buds restored, and missing the ondol during these past chilly Hong Kong nights.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Happy Lucky Pig Year!

Happy Chinese New Year!

It's holiday time and EVERYONE is feeling it! It's like what Xmas and New Year's is back home, but a hundred times over. Everywhere you turn, there are red and gold decorations and to welcome the year of the pig, and there is pig-everything that is sold: cakes, shirts, socks, pencil sharpeners, key chains, jewellry, and oh, i could go on...

These are two cute stuffed pigs Li gave us. According to the zodiac, if you were born in the Pig Year, you are a happy and chivalrous person who makes long-lasting friends easily. This is also the year where having a baby is supposedly very lucky, where he/she will grow up to be wealthy and successful. There is talk already of a huge increase in births in China to couples who were married last year, a lucky year to wed. For those wondering, Matt and I have decided, for the sake of our child (of course!) who would face unscrupulous competition, that we will forego the superstitions and hold out for another while :)

Valentine's Day was a fun day; i handed out Hershey Kisses to my Form 2 class after a superb lesson on the risks and benefits of flooding, case study: Chang Jiang River, China. Matt and I had a nice seafood hot pot dinner at home, wanting to avoid the hoards of people in the overpriced restaurants.

We get 10 days off at King's College which is the longest chunk of time off during the year if you don't count summer vacation. And tonight, on the midnight flight, we're off to Korea for a week of camping and hiking! We've equipped ourselves with a Lonely Planet guide and a Korean Phrasebook, but from what i've heard about Korea and there being very little written and spoken English, I have a feeling it will be a week of charades and pictionary!

So on the 1st of the 1st Lunar Month (or February 18th of the Gregorian calendar), we wish you "Gong hei fat choy!"

Monday, February 12, 2007

Something's in the air in Hong Kong

I'm really starting to enjoy living in Hong Kong. It surprises me since i've always had such an unjustified indifference for it from a very young age. I don't know how or why i never thought i'd enjoy living here, mainly from the assumption that i thought it was all concrete jungle with masses of people and choking hot air. It's all true, but there are gems hidden amongst it all, and not so out of reach either.

On Saturday, we embarked on a hike which literally started in our backyard and stretched all the way up the hills, winding its way through small villages and finally to the highway. I've always wanted to see where the path lead to, and after 4 rigorous hours it felt so good to come out at the other end. I love looking back to see where we've been, how high we've climbed, how far we've hiked. I don't know, it feels like an accomplishment to have a destination, albeit unknown at the beginning.

It's kinda how our life is currently. Not knowing where our destination is, but enjoying the journey now, and happy at all the pitstops we've made so far.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

If you dare...

Imagine my surprise at seeing this poster plastered all over the halls of King's College today! I wonder if any daring soul actually bought the stuff....

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hi ho hi ho, it's off the the IFC we go!

I took my Form 2 boys to the IFC (International Financial Centre) today for a field visit. Having just finished the IFC unit in our class, we took time out during our double lesson to get a tour around the monetary museum.

Here are a few of the boys in uniform posing for the camera, happy to be out of class :)

The view from the 55th floor was just stunning - HK buildings in Central are like matchsticks sticking out of the ground! The sky has been extremely clear the past few days too, I think it must be some of the factories over the border closing down for a few days during the Chinese Lunar New Year. And with the temperatures hovering around mid-twenties, you know summer is on its way.

I'm growing quite fond of my boys, in both classes, and dare i say, forming a respectful rapport with them.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Me: "Mrs. For-ninn-tonnnnn"

I'm almost done week 1 of 10 at King's College! Routine should never be under-rated: getting up when it's still dark out, sitting outside on the top floor of the ferry while munching on cereal, walking and busing and more walking, and only then do i begin my day at school. I'm glad my boys already know me and my style of teaching, so we can skip the whole intro thing and just jump right into the curriculum. At least that's the intention.

For my Form 1 class, we're covering "HK's Political Development", and let me just say right here how much I am learning myself. I gotta be really with it if i'm expected to relay the info correctly. There's the Executive Council, the LegCo, bow-tie Donald Tsang, HK's ongoing flirtatious relationship with 'universal sufferage' and now with the CE (Chief Executive) election coming up in late March, there are countless news clippings that i have at my immediate disposal for teaching material. That is, if i can time manage better and actually get around to talking about the headline news. I think i'll present it at the beginning of class tomorrow.

To me, it seems as if HK is constantly going through an identity crisis, what with being an immigrant port, then under British rule for generations, and then being handed back to the Mainland, and who knows what kind of pressure and influence they (Chinese Party Members) are exerting behind closed doors. All i can say honestly is that there is a lot of talk in the Hong Kong staff room and in the educational boardrooms about how the curriculum has shifted bigtime towards learning more Chinese History, Mandarin, and basically looking at all (Social Studies) subjects through Chinese (and i mean the beloved PRC) fuzzy lenses.

Ah, but at least i've got my boys (as i endearingly address them) to keep me focused. They are young, impressionable, full of energy and questions and innocence. They haven't reached the stage of indifference, of rude sly remarks to their elders, of being in the mindframe of "that sucks and i don't care". Well, most of them haven't even reached puberty yet! Which makes me taller than a lot of them, when i'm wearing heels - yes, you read right. For all 'my girls' who would never haved imagined me in heels, well, it's happened. It may not help me teach the political development of Hong Kong any better, but at least i feel i command a lot more respect and attention in my class of 35 and 43 students. And isn't that half the battle?