Category Archives: Blog
I’ve been working to get up country-by-country photo galleries from our trip. I’ve now posted those galleries for our cycling trip from the USA through half of New Zealand. Check them out on the PHOTOS tab above. The rest of New Zealand and Asia will be going up over the next couple of weeks.
‘Don’t be late, or you’ll be locked out’ is the last thing you want to hear before boarding an international flight. My younger brother, Julian, is teaching English in Tokyo and served as our host for the final stop on our round-the-world odyssey. I emailed him a few days before our flight to get his address and work out our arrival plans. A very complex plan emerged, which involved precision timing and no room for errors or else, well, we’d be locked out. Naturally, our flight was delayed. And the phone number I had for my brother was off by a digit. And it was raining.
In the arrivals gate, I spent about 20 minutes and a small fortune on a payphone demanding keys and directions from a non-English speaker before I realized that I was calling the wrong number. We didn’t have an address, as Julian’s building is unmarked, and we weren’t sure which neighborhood to go to to wait for him since his teaching assignments changed every day. So we sat in the Tokyo airport, the last stop on our whirlwind 14-month trip, for the first time at a loss for what to do.
Eventually, we chose a neighborhood that had come up in my many emails with Julian and seemed centrally located to a ton of train lines. Through miracles of iPhone technology, we were able to get a hold of him via email at a break in class and communicate- more or less- where we were. We found a crowded, over-priced American style diner and sipped at our $6 coffees- careful not to finish them too quickly and, thus, lose our right to sit wedged in the one free table we found where we were miraculously able to stash our Godzilla-sized backpacks. Julian came to retrieve us not too much later because he had been let out early on account of the typhoon. Did I mention it was raining?
After disembarking the train in his neighborhood, we sloshed through the rain, which was coming at us at a right angle, for a good 15 minutes before coming to his very tiny, very Japanese, ‘apartment’. It was basically a boarding house where each of the eight tenants had their own doll-house sized room and shared laundry, toilets, and showers. There was one shower for eight adults. And we made ten. Julian graciously heated up some pasta on his hot-plate (no kitchen, obvs) and after we finished doing the dishes, we washed up ourselves in the sink- the lone water source (aside from toilet and shower) and single concession to the amenities that most adults take for granted as tools for basic hygiene and sanity.
This story is not meant to highlight my own high-maintenance attitude, but goes to show that it is an arrogant traveler who thinks that having a full passport means that there are no surprises left. We were more stressed out on our arrival in Japan than we had been since being held up at knifepoint in Honduras. The thing that was different about this arrival versus all of the others, of course, was that this time we had a plan: so there was something to go wrong. Every other time, we were just winging it, so we couldn’t have messed it up if we tried. We ended up having a fantastic time in Tokyo despite our uneasy arrival, the very pronounced cultural divide, and the fact that Japan is the most God-awfully expensive country on the face of the planet. But we’ll get to all that later….
Our host, Attila, left us the door code to his place in Seoul (because Korea is so over keys) and allowed us the run of the place for our last few days in the country. We did a lot of eating, an equitable amount of drinking, and a little sightseeing, although we were kind of going through the motions by the end. Korea is definitely one of our favorite countries we’ve visited ever; the food is out of this world, the prices are totally reasonable for a developed country, and the scenery is spectacular. We wish we had more time to spend there, but Korea was the second to last stop before our triumphant return to the US and even though there was so much more to see, we became single-minded about family, friends, and waffle-cut fries.
We hit all the prescribed sights on the tourist list: the charming Insadong antique district, the hectic Namdaemun Market, the flashy Myeongdong shopping district, and one of the five palaces that still survive in the middle of downtown Seoul. We felt like we could only take on one palace after all the temples and historic villages we’d seen in the past 14 months, so we opted to visit Changdeokgung, which is attached to Biwon, a ‘secret garden’ for royal use only. We joined the obligatory English language tour and found ourselves trailing along the back of the group and making faces at each other at each stop. We had officially had enough of it all. We just wanted to go home. This is no knock on the garden or the city or tour groups or anything- we were just ready to go.
It was so nice to return to Attila’s apartment at the end of the day in Seoul, knowing that we would not be sleeping in a hotel room again for a long, long time. Our next stop would be Tokyo, where we’d stay with my brother, then on to the States, where we already had a roster of friends and family lined up to take us in. Just the other day, back home in California, a good friend of mine introduced me to the K-Pop craze that is sweeping the nation: PSY’s Gangnam Style, which immortalizes the Gangnam district in Seoul where we stayed with Attila. So it all comes full circle.
When we say that we went to Korea, people often quip: ‘North or South?’ Well, I can snarkily reply that I actually have been to North Korea. So suck on that.
It was really a momentous occasion for R and I because we hadn’t been apart more than 3 or 4 hours at a time during the past 10 months, but we went our separate ways for and entire day on this one. R was supposed to go off to do an overnight temple stay, but it didn’t really come together so he just bought a few bottles of soju and watched American sitcoms on the laptop. I, on the other hand, paid US$120 to get up with all the morning commuters and make my way to the office of Tour DMZ, where I was put on a bus with about 50 other tourists to make the 35 mile trip from downtown Seoul to the DMZ- the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
The DMZ tour is pretty much at the top of the Things To Do list for any visitor to Seoul. It marks the contentious border between two countries that are still technically at war- one in which the US played an essential part. The United Nations Command now officially monitors the DMZ, though US troops are still a very visible presence and both North and South Korea have their own soldiers securing their respective sides of the border. Political importance aside, a trip to the DMZ is pretty much the only way the average American can ‘step foot’ in North Korea. And the only way to get to the DMZ is to be shepherded by an official DMZ tour company, which is why I shelled out a ton of dollars for the privilege of posting these photos on the blog.
All kinds of crazy things have happened in the DMZ over the years: axe murders, defectors making run for the border, and the kick-off of the Cold War. The tour was ripe with all kinds of stories about life in North Korea, villages that still exist in the DMZ, and the follies of observing protocol at DMZ sites. One man in my group snapped a few photos on his digital camera when we were out of the ‘photo zone’ and was instantly descended on by soldiers who scrolled through and erased the offending photos.
The tour took us through highlights like the dank and creepy 3rdTunnel, the sterile Dorasan Train Station, and Freedom Bridge, where an old train engine sat all twisted and shot full of holes- a testament to the violent history of the place. The main event was our 15-minute visit to a conference room in the Joint Security Area, a room that technically straddles the border between the two Koreas. We all took obligatory photos of ourselves standing with one foot on each side of the line, then were ushered back on the bus for Seoul.
For $120, I had to ask myself ‘was it worth it?’ The tour was short on thrills and excitement and photo ops were heavily restricted- which is totally reasonable- but the importance of the place really sank in after I left. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle called the DMZ ‘partly kitschy, partly creepy and wholly compelling’ which totally sums it up.
Korea has got a lot of things going for it: fantastic food; a thriving economy; a rich cultural heritage that includes art, architecture, music; and a love of drinking. But nothing excites Koreans more than the national pastime: hiking. These aren’t your earthy-crunchy hippy hikers, either- it’s everyone. And they all show up in brightly colored technical apparel so a walk in the woods begins to resemble a Phish concert.
We are often mistaken for people who are in good shape since the first part of this trip was done on bicycles. Sometimes we even think of ourselves as fit even though we have spent the better part of the last 4 months sitting on hammocks, drinking beer. There is no better barometer of physical fitness than huffing and puffing up a mild incline while a parade of little Asian grandmothers power-stride right past you. At first we had snickered at all the people with their stretchy pants and hiking poles at the base of the trail, but we came to see that all that fancy gear is put to use. And the most impressive thing is that every time we’d pass a group of hikers breaking for lunch, there would always be a 2-liter bottle of soju accompanying the meal. Our kind of people.
We visited two parks during our trip: Jirisan National Park in the south and Seoraksan National park in the north. The former is the largest and oldest park in the country and holds 14 of the highest peaks in Korea; the latter is the most popular, as it is not so far from Seoul, so city folk can make the trip in a weekend. We combined our Seoraksan visit with a stay in Sokcho, which has a reputation as a great beach getaway spot in the summer. When we arrived at the local campground, we found that it was closed, so we set up our tent anyway and waited to see if someone would tell us to go away. No one ever did, so we spent the night in the empty campground and went out to the locally famous fish market for dinner, where we selected live fish from plastic tubs, which were dismembered on the spot and served to us raw. Accompanied by a bunch of soju, naturally. We got up first thing the next morning and caught a bus out to the park, stashing our huge packs for the day with a friendly vendor for a couple of dollars. I have to give a shout-out to a website that we found that made our visits waaaay easier than they would have been without speaking the language: Korea in The Clouds. Apparently it is no longer being updated, but the information there is incredible and browsing through the links gives you a sense of the hiking culture in the country.
Hiking in Korea is different than hiking in the US. All the parks are in heavy use, there are buses that bring hikers to the trailheads from city centers, and there are little eateries everywhere- even on the trail. You could be hiking for over an hour, then stumble on a couple Korean ladies cooking up steaks. There is alcohol everywhere, unlike US parks, which typically prohibit booze of any kind, especially on the trails. There is very little camping; any overnight hikers are required to stay in trail huts that provide bathrooms, blankets, and even some light snacks for a small fee. On our overnight hike in Jirisan National Park, we were even able to charge our iPods on chargers provided for free in the shelter. In some ways, this takes away the romance of a rustic, remote experience in nature. On the other hand, it makes the parks more accessible to people who don’t have the time, gear, or inclination to carry heavy packs for multiple days to get out into the wild. It’s also a very different culture where you are likely to see sleek young city girls in heels (heels!) hiking along side their grandparents while everyone is slightly tipsy on the gallons of sojuthey brought along instead of Clif bars.
I have to say that the parks are lovely and well-maintained. The geography of Korea is all spiny mountains covered in vegetation making for spectacular scenery year round. Our visit was in the summer when everything was wet and green, but autumn is an equally popular time of year to visit as all the leaves turn colors, a la Maine. Every park seems to have at least one temple in it’s boundaries, so every visit is like a painting in a Chinese restaurant- all mist-shrouded craggy rocks and pine trees. Sadly, no pandas. Unless you drink enough soju.
These are all photos from Seoraksan National Park, one of the most famous and well-visited in the country:
Phew! We thought that we lost basically all of our photos from Korea and beyond, but it turned out that R just inadvertently sent the camera in for repairs with the SD card still inside. So now we’ve got our camera fixed and tons and tons more pictures to share. These pictures of our Rail Bike trip should have gone in a previous post, but I’m putting them up now because they are so uniquely Korean and capture the second half of one of our favorite days on the trip.
Call me childish, but the penis park at Haesindang, about 45 minutes outside the beach town of, Samcheok was by far and away one of my favorite stops on the trip. I wanted to go because it sounded kitschy and I thought we could get good photos (it was, and we did), but it turned out to be a totally fantastic experience in and of itself. First of all, the location of the park is unbeatable and we caught it during a gorgeous, albeit slightly cloudy, day. We also combined our visit with other fun activities like the Rail Bike ride and a visit to the beach, although it was a bit too chilly to swim.
Somehow, we deleted all of our photos of the Rail Bike ride, which was something like $20, but totally, totally worth it. We opted out of the region’s other main attractions: a pair caves, lit up to look like a rock show, or so I’m told. Time and patience was wearing thin, so we just enjoyed our day at the beach and the attendant activities and called it a day.
Oh, it occurred to me that perhaps I should provide some context for the penis park, lest you think, between love motels, problem-drinking, and phallic recreational areas, that Koreans are all a bunch of pervs. There is a legend associated with the sight. The condensed version goes something like this: a long, long time ago a young woman, soon to be married, went out to the beach to gather clams or driftwood or something. Without much warning, a storm rolled in and she was stuck on the jagged rocky outcropping that you can see from a couple of our photos. No one was able to rescue her and she was swept out to sea and never found. Shortly after her death, the village suffered from a poor fishing season and at wit’s end. One day, a young man from the village relieved himself in full view of the beach and brought in a huge haul of fish the very next day. Legend says that the unmarried girl died ‘unfulfilled’, if you catch my drift, but rewarded the village with good fishing once she got an eyeful of what she had been missing from the local young man. To ensure that the girl remained satisfied and the fishing stayed profitable, the villagers began installing hand-carved phallus statues in full view of the ocean. Now, artists from all over the world have contributed to the collection and there was even a Penis Festival for many years until evangelist Christians put the kibosh on it. Party poopers aside, the park remains popular with tourists and giggling locals and there is absolutely no end of clever poses that people come up with for their family vacation photo albums.
Korea has a handful of ‘traditional villages’ scattered around the country for tourists and schoolchildren to have something to do when they are not getting blackout drunk on soju or grilling their own meat, tableside (see the breadth of my understanding of Korean culture?). There are several traditional villages scattered about the country, but we chose to visit Hahoe Village mostly because it was on the way to the coast. In addition to its convenient location, Hahoe has the distinction of being a functional village- meaning that real, live people continue to live in the village’s thatched roofed houses in exchange for a government stipend (it’s kind of far away from anything). There are some concessions to modernity like the occasional satellite dish, but the place is a pretty convincing depiction of old-timey Korea, at least as far as I can tell. In fact, Hahoe is so carefully preserved that historically-themed movies or TV shows are often filmed on sight, which was the case when we visited. Some movie extras followed us around and eventually indicated that they’d like to have their photos taken with us, which is a refreshingly bizarre change of pace for tourists, although a relatively common phenomenon in Asia.
Village delights aside, we really enjoyed our time in the city of Andong, which has the closest bus station to Hahoe Village. We met a group of English teachers from America, who all assumed that we were English teachers as well. We wandered around town and took in the sights of a regular Korean city: high-rise apartments and an abundance of Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream shops (to my unending glee). Aside from the food, language, and universal condoning of over-consumption of alcohol, Korea is not so different from the US, which made it comfortable to explore.
Gyeongju was a real highlight of our stay in Korea and it’s got to be at the top of the short list of major attractions in the whole country. It is the historical capital of the Shilla kingdom, which ruled much of the Korean peninsula for several centuries. The iconic hills in the center of town are actually tombs housing the remains of Shilla royalty and there is a fantastic museum that exposes an excavation of one of the tombs. Despite the fact that the whole town seems to be a giant historical sight (there has been documented human settlement here since prehistoric times), the town is lively and full of university students, young English teachers, and tourists of all types. It was also the site of the poshest love motel stay we had on the whole trip.
We stayed several days in Gyeongju- the longest we spent in any one place during our entire stay in Korea- and could have spent even more time exploring the surrounding towns and countryside. We rented bikes to tool around for the first two days, then submitted to public transit to get us to the famous temple just outside of town, the Bulguksa Temple. Bulguksa is widely considered one of the most beautiful and important temples in Korea, along with the Seokguram Grotto, which lies about 4km away. We thought it was just okay. Haeinsa was much more impressive to us, perhaps because the smaller size made it feel more intimate. We were so bored by Bulguksa that we decided to skip the long bus ride and hike up to Seokguram Grotto and just get back to the comforts of our love motel. I feel guilty writing that after the fact, but it is a reality of long-term travel that you get kind of apathetic at certain points. We were equally apathetic about the local specialty-Gyeongju ppang- which are mini barley pancakes made into sandwiches with sweet red bean paste inside. We were able to work up some enthusiasm for the enormous ssamspread that we had for lunch on the second day: not our best meal, but one of our biggest and after all our biking around, we were satisfied by quantity over quality.