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Korea

Sept 27, 2008 – Incheon

It’s 1:30pm in Korea.  We are sitting at the airport terminal waiting for a flight home.  We board in about 25minutes.  Unlike Canadian airports who charge for internet access, the airport here gives it away, so we publish one final update.

We arrived at the airport a fair bit early for our flight and have been rewarded with emergency exit seats so we have lots of leg room!!

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Korea Seoul

Sept 26, 2008 – Seoul

Seoul

A trip back to the Insadong area allowed us to finish up the souvenir shopping and even some Christmas Shopping. This must be a record for me for starting my Christmas shopping. I suspect the same cannot be said for Darlene.

After finishing our shopping expedition, we tried to find a walking route that is listed in the Lonely Planet guide book. The walk would have taken us past areas where Shaman rituals are performed. The guide book did state that part of the area is under redevelopment. When we got to the area we found many apartment buildings where we felt there should be small alleys to navigate. We walked trying to find the area and the path. We have learned that when you are looking for many tourist things in Korea going uphill is a pretty good bet. We kept going up, asking directions periodically and kept getting told to keep going up. Soon we got to a gate with police / military personnel, we asked for Inwangsa and got told to carry on – “100m on your left”.

After 100m there was a fence and gate to go through. A young Korean man dressed in black active wear was standing beside a sign that asked visitors to be respectful in the area and the sign told us that the practicing of shamanism is prohibited. This was the first sign that we may be in the right area. We started hiking up the trail, which was not terribly well maintained and neither Dar or I felt it was quite right. To our right there was a fence with barbed wired on the top. Along the trail we passed another gate – through this gate several soldiers exited a compound/barracks area. We continued up the trail. After a while we came upon an exercise area and then another more updated exercise area. These are common on many trails.

The trail turned up hill and each step was marked with white paint, which I think was reflective. We passed a small sandbagged bunker. As a clearing opened up, we could see a magnificent view of parts of downtown Seoul and old Royal Palaces. We continued up hill through a gate topped with more barbed wire. As we reached the next opening we could see military observation posts, several soldiers all dressed in black active wear and golf shirts — just as the young man at the bottom of the trail was dressed. One observation post was well developed and was topped with a large piece of artillery. We continued another 300 m to the summit of Mount Iswang and we were treated to a great view of Seoul from all angles. It was a great treat on a sunny and cool fall day. From the hill you could see old parts of the fortress wall that used to protect Seoul. In some areas it has been restored and at points along it you can see new military observation towers.

Korea has mandatory military service and we have seen many Koreans in uniform traveling to and fro on the subway. This hike was the first real ‘military’ presence we have seen in Seoul where you can begin to appreciate that this is a country still officially at war. Even so, the soldiers were not carrying weapons and they were dressed to blend in with hikers in the area.

As we stopped for a break and had a nectarine . Two women at the top shared some of their cookies with us. Just another small example of the friendliness and generosity of the Korean people, and a great way to close the trip.

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Korea Seoul

Sept 25, 2008 – Seoul / Suwon

Seoul / Suwon

The Korean Folk Village in Suwon, south of Seoul, is the Korean version of Upper Canada Village. It has replicas of traditional houses and some actual traditional houses that have been moved from different parts of Korea to give visitors an idea of how a village could have looked. As you move through the village you can see different classes of houses and how Koreans would have lived. They have actors who are living the part so you can see how some of the daily tasks are done.

The Village also has different performances that are done during the day. Today they were canceled due to rain. This is the first time during our trip that we have had rain during the day – it was off and on but never very hard. It was also cool enough to get us both wearing long sleeves.

Today seemed to be school trip day at the Folk Village – as it was full of school kids. Which meant we got to practice saying ‘Hello!’ to many kids.

After the village we traveled back into Seoul, about 2 hours of bus and subway, we arrived at Apgujeong, a high class shopping area. The area is packed with plastic surgery clinics and an anti-aging hospital. Didn’t look like there was any shopping for us. We did come across a very cool kind of bank – a Beer Bank!!

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Korea Seoul

Sept 24, 2008 – Seoul

Seoul

Just over 2 weeks ago we arrived at Changdeokung (Palace of Prospering Virtue) for the 11:30am tour to find out that it is closed on Mondays. Today it was open. You can only go into Changdeokung on a guided tour, so this was the biggest collection of English speaking people since we arrived here.

Changdeokung was a backup palace for the Korean royalty used up to the end of the Joseon dynasty that ended in 1910 when the Japanese invaded and occupied Korea. It was originally completed in 1412. Because it was used into the 20th century, some parts of the palace are decorated with western furniture, it has a modern kitchen and electric lights. We learned that the males and females had separate living quarters for during the day. This reflected a belief in Confucianism that men and women should be separate. During the night the King could spend the night in the Queens residence where the sleeping quarters are located. Each building has a name painted in large Chinese calligraphy at the entrance. The name of the Queen’s residence was “Place where Great things are made” (loosely from my memory). Basically – the place where heirs are made.

The palace also has a large garden that was behind the area containing the buildings that is called the secret garden. It is 78 acres, is very peaceful and contains lotus ponds and various pavilions and retreats for the royalty. In the garden there is a gate named the gate of never growing old – this is to encourage longevity for Joseon Kings whose average life span was 44 years.

After visiting the palace, it was shopping time for Darlene. We spent most of the afternoon browsing shops in the Insadong area of Seoul. After that I let Darlene loose in the Lotte Department store. Apparently it is very big and busy and expensive! Dar didn’t last too long in there – but that’s not before she discovered her very own brand of chocolate!

During our shopping we were stopped by 3 Korean girls. For school they had to interview English speaking foreigners to learn what we thought of Korea so they could practice their English. At the end of the interview Darlene gave each of them a “Canada” key chain. This was quite a surprise to them. To reciprocate, one of the girls reached into a shopping bag and gave us a small bag she had just purchased. We politely told her the gift was unnecessary but this made her uncomfortable. So we accepted the small gift so as not to offend.

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Korea Seoul

Sept 23, 2008 – Seoul

Seoul

The morning was spent catching up on documenting the trip and photos from the last few days. Our nights had been late so that we didn’t work on it. The work was done as we rode the train from Busan to Seoul. We took the KTX (Korea Train Express) – Korea’s high speed train. The trip took 2 hours and 45 minutes. The fastest speed that I noticed was 298 km/hr. The train ride wasn’t as smooth as I remember the bullet train in Japan but it is still really nice. Forty-four high speed trains run between Seoul and Busan every day.

We are back to Seoul a few days before we fly home to see things we didn’t see before and to let Darlene do some shopping!

Today for dinner we explored a new part of the city for us. We had learned that Jackie Chan has a restaurant in Seoul which is apparently only 2 subways stops from our hotel. We’ve read mediocre reviews of the restaurant but decided if there is one restaurant there are more.

We decided to walk and discovered that behind the hotel is a small river with biking trails, running trails, workout stations, archery field and a croquet court. We found ourselves in an area that is newer and more residential than we had been in before. Brand new giant apartments buildings, families milling about, kids riding bikes in courtyards, restaurants and small spots. Really probably everything you need to live was within walking distance. It was a long way from a tourist spot. We found a small pizza place (Kanana) that for about $6 you could get a large pizza. This is a lot cheaper than the $25 we paid for our last pizza at a more westernized restaurant. Food wise, any restaurant that is westernized seems more expensive.

We wandered around the area and passed a pet grooming store with two little doggies that has just had their fur done and were wearing matching outfits. It was just a picture that had to be taken!

We passed a small restaurant with a plastic chairs and tables in a courtyard so we sat down for a pint and watched the world go by. Amazed by the traffic and moving of patio tables so that cars could be parted. We saw one motorcycle pass and a cell phone was dropped. The bike quickly stopped while the passenger ran back to retrieve the phone.

One thing we noticed and heard is there is a fear of beef from the US, apparently due to false information about BSE, we did see one amusing poster about it.

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Korea

Sept 22, 2008 – Busan

Busan

We traveled today to Beomeosa temple, an active temple. It was a 3km walk up a winding and pretty steep roadway. Luckily a shaded walk. For part of the trip we were not sure if we were going the right way – signs are not also where you need them (or at least where we need them). The roadway had 2 lanes of traffic going the same direction but I am not really sure why there were lines on the road as the use of lanes seemed very arbitrary.

On the way there, we stopped at one temple and recorded the sound of a service going on. Then proceeded back up the road to our destination. Beomeosa is a large temple with a Templestay program for those that which to enhance their practice and also has what seems to be a large training center. Here again we were able to record some additional sounds of the temple.

As were were pretty hungry at this point and with no food in sight, we took a bus back down to the city. As the bus departed the temple and started downhill we discovered all the restaurants we on the downhill side of the road. We did not have exact change for the bus. In total it cost us 2000 Won but we only have a 5000 Won note. We put it in the bill collector. At the end of the bus ride the driver called me up to the front. He was taking 1000 Won notes from people, instead of having them deposit them, to make change.

We had lunch at a small restaurant just past the bus terminal. We ordered ‘nude sushi’ and a noodle soup. Nude sushi has the rice rolled on the outside. We were very surprised to find slices of processed cheese in the roll. A group of 4 women whom we saw at the temple came into the restaurant. From how they were ordering and checking phrase books we knew they were tourists – at the time I assumed from from Japan. We could hear the shock as they saw sliced cheese being added to their sushi roll. We ran into them again in the afternoon and they turned out to be from Singapore on a 2 week holiday.

We took a cable car ride in Geomjgang park to get up the south gate Geumjeong fortress. This a fortress that was destroyed by the Japanese during one of their invasions. When it was fully built it had 17 km of walls and 4 gates (North, South, East and West). From the top of the cable car we were told it was a 20 minute walk to the south gate. For us a it was probably 35 minute walk. Direction signs were not always where we needed them – at least not English ones. The English signs tended to be along the straight aways and not at the decision points (do I go left or right?). It took us 13 minutes to walk back once we found the gate.. Based on a sign in Korean that was present at the south gate, it appears that there is a plan to restore the fortress (or many parts of it) by 2010. Or at least that’s how I interpreted the sign.

As we descended the cable car we could see many areas of Busan. It is a port city that buttresses up against mountains and hills. The city has developed around many of the smaller hills and you can see the green tops of the small hills poking through the developed the city looking like little islands.

After the trip up the mountain we went to the Korean baths. Located in the Nongshin Hotel these bathes are apparently the largest in Korea. The bath part is separated by gender and you are naked in the baths. There is a large rest area that is mixed – you get a little uniform of sorts to wear. In the common area there are saunas that are coed and an ice room that is kept at -2 degrees C. I was the only one in there and I couldn’t help but to think of Sam McGee from Tennessee and the Marge of Lake Lebarge as I was in there. It was the most comfortable I had been since I got to Korea – nice and cool!

The process of the baths is pretty straight forward, and there were some young children. For some this is part of your lifestyle. As you enter, you shower to clean off then you can soak in any number of baths that range from ice cold to scalding hot (45 degrees C). There was one that was a giant tea bath – complete with giant floating tea bags. The signs indicated that the tea is changed everyday – but the description of the contents of the bags was all in Korean so we don’t know what was in it. One bath in the Men’s side was green, a Jasmine – Mint bath. On the women’s side it was Yellow – just a jasmine. There are also saunas and an area where you can be exfloliated by the staff. From the effort they were puting into it, it looked like a couple of layers of skin would come off!

You then finish up with another shower and exfloliating yourself with a fairly abrasive cloth.

Dar and I finished about the same time (about after 90 minutes) and then waited in slightly different places for each other for about an hour. We checked for each other, but as timing would have it seems we missed each other by a few minutes each time we moved to where the other was!

Temple Sounds

Chanting

One gong from a bell

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Korea

Sept 21, 2008 – Busan

Pusan

We visited Hae Dung Yong Gong temple. It is another buddhist temple in Korea – there are a lot of them. This one differs from the last we have seen in that it is not set in the forest or up a mountain and isn’t a small hermitage on the shear face of a rock wall. This temple is set right on the coast facing the East Korea Sea. This temple would be exposed to the storms on the ocean and the “Dragon Sea”. It is a beautiful temple, the location is calming and serene. This was the busiest temple we visited. Probably because it is a weekend.

As we sat on the rock watching the ocean we were reminded once again about the kindness and generousity of the Korean people. A girl, probably around 10 years old, approached us with 2 halves of a peeled apple and offer it to us. Another family wanted to take our picture with their daughters who then shared their doughy sweet treats with us. We also got a picture of us with the entire family.

We spent probably over an hour traveling to our next location a migratory bird sanctuary. Korea is on the migratory route of many species of birds as they travel from their summer homes to winter locations. Birds migrate from places such as Alaska and Russia to India, New Zealand and Australia and places in between. The centre has a great interpretive centre, some English through it. At some points in the center you can control the CCTV cameras around the sanctuary to see was it going on.

The river where the sanctuary is located has a dam and fishway to help local species of fish travel up and down the river. The dam also provides some electric power as well as monitoring water levels. There is a small center explaining the importance of managing water in Korea as the only source of fresh water is precipitation. As we were leaving the centre the woman at the reception desk directed us to the interpretive centre for the bird sanctuary by actually walking us out of the building the pointing us in the right direction to see the birds. I think part of this was because she wasn’t sure that her instructions in English were clear so she wanted us to get going in the right direction.

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Korea

Sept 20 2008 – Busan

Busan

Across from the Busan express train station is a sign “Shopping area for foreigners”. Obviously a sign like this must be checked out. It was a strange area with a very different feel to it. It creeped both of us out. There is Russian writing on many of the shops and bars. One man yelled at me, asking me if I wanted a hair cut. One think I have read is that a hair cut in Korea is not always just a hair cut. I think we discovered where the Russian mafia lives in Busan today. There is a large influx of Russian into Busan because it is a major port.

After this experience we meandered to the Yongdusan Park which has the Busan tower and a statue to Admiral Yi who defended (successfully and unsuccessfully) several invasion attempts by the Japanese in the 16th Century.

The Jagalachi fish market claims to be the largest in Korea, and it may be, but I think the one in Seoul is more impressive. This one is scattered amongst several buildings and areas, some being quite modern, though some of the shop keepers are smoking while they work. There are also vendors outside the buildings selling their fish under the heat of the day, constantly adding ice to their fish.

We learned how young a democracy that South Korea is. Democracy Park commemorate the democratic and civil rights movements within Busan. Their struggle for democracy and unfixed elections carried on from the 1960s and up into the late 1980s. From some things I have read the governments still have some authoritarian tendencies. From there it was a short walk to a memorial to those Koreans that have died since 1948 defending their country, it is on a great site over looking the whole of Busan harbour.

Dinner was in Gwangen Beach area – beer, meat on skewers and a brownie. Dinner of champions. Their is a bridge here that is all lit up at night and is quite nice. We were reminded of how regulated we are home. In one area of the beach their were vendors set up with bottles of liquor (a decent enough selection) and you could just buy a bottle. Beer, wine, soju (local firewater) are all available in stores and you can drink anywhere.

The subway system is much easier than Seoul’s. It is not nearly as far to transfer between lines as it is in Seoul. Here it is more like Toronto – up a flight of stairs and you are on another line. In Seoul it can be a long walk (5 minutes) with many stairs in between lines at the same stop. One thing that is common is people who come on the trains to sell their wares. They move between cars shouting their pitch and showing their product. We don’t always now what they are, but some seem to sell a few things.

The reaction of children to us can be very amusing. Adults will look at us cautiously, not always sure what to do. A smile or small bow will often be reciprocated. Young children (3-5 years) are often stopped dead in their tracks when the see us (usually me – Bruce). They gawk for a few seconds then will often grab a parents leg and hide. Then they will look again and hide again. Some you can see are trying to figure out what to say. In one case a few days ago, the grandparent was trying to get the grand daughter to talk to us in English. I am sure the conversation was something like: You spend all this time learning English now is your chance. The girl never spoke to us. We did say ‘hi’ in both English and Korean but she ran off.

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Korea

Sept 19, 2008 – Busan

Pusan (Busan)

Darlene wanted a beach, so she got a beach! We are in Pusan which is famous for its beaches. We are staying at Haeundae beach. Apparently the beach can have ½ million visitors a day during the peak season. Despite the fact that it is 30 degrees the beach is relatively deserted. We went down to swim in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and sat on the beach for the last of the afternoon sun.

Pusan is the second largest city in Korea (about 4 million people) and is the largest port in Korea.

After walking home from a nice dinner tonight we discovered that we are staying in the red light district of the beach. We walked up a sidewalk that is lined with small shrubs by the street. Sitting in the doorway of many of the residences were women in bras.

As we have gotten back to a larger city we are reminded of how many western brands are in Korea. In Seoul when we first arrived Baskin Robbins was the first store I saw. We have seen many other western brands: Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, TGI Friday’s, Outback, Body Shop, Gap and many more. In some places you could feel that you are anywhere in the world and not in Korea.

The are some Korean brands that don’t translate well to the west. The computer in our last hotel was a new brand: Lemon Computer.

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Korea

Sept 18 2008 – Gyeongju

Gyeongju

We headed out to the Gyeongju National Museum this morning. It is a nice museum consisting of several buildings and some items that are outside to be visited. Outside there is a large bell which is the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok. Inside one of the buildings there was a depiction of how the bell was constructed – a large hole in the earth was dug in the shape of the bell and metal was heated until melted the the melted metal was poured into the “mold”. Apparently the bell can be heard for 2.5 miles when rung – this is when there is nothing in the way. There are many artifacts including crowns, belts, bowls and vessels, swords, tools, arrowheads, etc.

While we were at the museum several school trips with many children arrived. We heard the usual phrases that all the children learn: Hello, how are you, I am fine, where are you from, how old are you (a new one today), and nice to meet you. We also were asked to sign many of their notebooks and had our picture taken with a bunch of 12 year old boys. Kind of like being rock stars!

After lunch we headed to Imhaejeon site to see the Anapji man made pond and the reconstructed buildings that are an example of the several buildings that existed on this site as part of the Silla era. The area was a royal palace/ retreat around 700AD. It was very peaceful and nice when the sun went behind the clouds, otherwise it was stinking hot.

We spoke to a clerk at a Columbia store, she said it is very hot this year and that both this year and last year are hotter than normal. We are still having amazing weather. It has only rained on us one day so far and that was a very short period of time. Two nights ago it rained over night. Our favourite days are cloudy as they block the intensity of the sun.