In and Around Incheon

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Songdo, the city where I am living, is a new, ‘international’ city that is part of Incheon, an older city that played a crucial role during the Korean War.

Incheon and Songdo are very different, and we like to say that once you go across the bridge from Songdo into Incheon, you are in the real Korea. As we are wrapping up our time here, we have done a few fun things in Incheon recently.

One thing we did was go to a baseball game. The SK Wyverns (a small dragon) play in Incheon, so we went to a game! All the Korean baseball teams are named after companies; SK is a gas station. The tickets were cheap, and you can bring in your own food and beverages. The vendors inside the stadium sell two main foods: fried chicken and ramen. There these big water tanks throughout the stadium that dispense hot water for your ramen bowl. Pretty cool! We got both, and also some toppokki, a very smooth rice cake smothered in spicy sauce. Unfortunately, despite our best cheering efforts, the Wyverns were loosing 12-2 when we left at the top of the 8th.

A few nights ago, Zak and Lindsay and I headed back over the bridge to Incheon China Town, the only China Town in Korea. It is famous for jangjangmyeon, noodles smothered in a black bean sauce. We got some for dinner, of course and enjoyed walking around, people watching and taking touristy pictures. Unfortunately, on the way home, Zak took a wrong turn and we ended up on the bridge to the airport, where there is no place to turn around. One hour, 24 kilometers and 12,000 won in tolls later, we finally made it home.

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Buddhist Temples Galore!

During our time in Busan, we visited two very different Buddhist temples.

Seokbulsa Temple was the first one we visited. Although it is Lonely Planet’s number 1 thing to do in Busan, the directions it gives for getting there are very poor. Luckily, there were a few signs along the way, and the strategy of following the Ks in their hiking gear worked like a charm.

Seokbulsa was an extension of our hike along the Geumjeongsanseong  fortress, and it was definitely worth the extra energy it took to get there. The road up to it was extremely steep, and there were many stairs. However, we were rewarded with a spectacular temple. Seokbulsa is not your average Buddhist temple, as the mountain actually is the temple, and the monks have created beautiful carvings and nooks in the side of the cliff where people can pray to different buddhas. The view looking out on Busan from the temple wasn’t too bad either. If you’re ever in Busan, this is a must visit.

The second temple we visited was completely different, but also very beautiful and unique. Whereas Seokbulsa is carved into a mountain, Yonggungsa is perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. We rode a bus to get there, and predictably, the only stop that was announced in English was the one for the temple. We visited in the evening, when the sun was starting to set, and it made the place even more magical than it already is. Trip Advisor reviews from other travelers reported that sunrise is the best time of day to go, and they’re probably right because the temple faces the sea out to the east. Yonggungsa was much more open, and larger, with a traditional temple building and many statues of different buddhas. The sea breeze and the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below the temple made it a really special place. Zak gave 1,000 won (about $1) to the buddha of academic success, so hopefully it heeds him well in the future. The buddha of giving birth to a son had a really worn belly from so many people rubbing it.

Both photos are from Yonggungsa Temple.

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Photos from a delicious Korean barbecue dinner Zak and I enjoyed in Busan. The meat is pork belly, which you grill over charcoal at your table, dip in sauce and wrap up in a romaine or sesame leaf before stuffing in your mouth. Something that never ceases to amaze me is how many dishes there are to wash after a Korean meal!

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Where Mountains Meet Sea

One of the reasons I came to Korea to work was to see a lot of this beautiful country. Unfortunately, due to our local programming for Outdoor Ed, I haven’t gotten to see as much as I would have liked. However, we did have 5 days off, in which time Zak and I travelled south by bus to Korea’s second biggest city, Busan, which is on the southern coast of the peninsula.

Busan definitely has a different feel to it than Seoul. The air is lighter, breezier, and less polluted. The people are less accustomed to (foreign) tourists. The city itself spreads out along the coast and inland from the coast, with various mountains and hills separating different parts of the city. Another instructor, a Korean named Max, says that people in Busan are much more conservative than people in Seoul, and they speak an accented Korean that he can hardly understand (I, of course, cannot tell the difference).

I found a really cheap Korean motel near the famous Jagalchi Fish Market, and a few blocks from the Busan Internation Film Festival Square, where there are hundreds of food trucks and a plethora of shops and restaurants all year round. That first evening we walked around the outskirts of the fish market (flip flops are not appropriate fish market footwear), and wandered around the BIFF area for awhile, watching people, and occasionally stopping in a hof (Korean pub that usually also serves fried chicken, and gives you a free fried snack with your drink) to enjoy a drink. It was a Saturday night, so the area was full of people, and I’m pretty sure it probably has more lights on a single street than in all of Times Square. Eventually we found a simple place for dinner, enjoyed some noodles in broth and headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, after fueling up on coffee from McDonald’s and a chocolate muffin from Starbucks, we set out for quite the adventerous hike. [A quick note on the breakfast: it is nearly impossible to find in Korea, as even most coffee shops don’t open until 10 am, I highly recommend buying breakfast at the grocery store and eating in your hotel if you’re ever traveling here].

We took the subway to the northeast end of Busan and began our trek up the road (about 4k) to Beomsa Temple, where our hike would began. Although there weren’t any signs pointing the way, a good strategy to find the way is to follow the Korean people (whom we’ve dubbed ‘The K’s’) in their brightly colored, fancy hiking wear. We walked up the mountain behind the temple and started making our way to the north gate of the Geumjeongsanseong Fortress. This ‘fortress’ is really a wall that is about 17k long, however we only hiked from the north gate to the south gate via the east gate, a distance of about 8k. The fortress was built to protect the people of Busan after the Japanese invaded in the late 1500s. The wall is up on the top of Mt. Geomjeonsan, and thus provides amazing views of the city and the sea. It was crowded with Koreans, but luckily, we’ve come to expect that, so it didn’t impact our hike at all. It was a beautiful day, we had great weather, and I was really happy that my knee held up throughout the entire hike (we extended the hike at the end to visit a temple that I’ll write about in the next post). A fun fact about hiking trails in Korea: there are no switchbacks here, so there are stairs (lots of stairs) on all the steep parts of any hiking trail.

On second day, we took a shorter hike on a boardwalk that snaked around the edge of an island just off of the city. It was really neat to go hiking again, but have a totally different experience. It was beautiful to see the coastline and watch the waves crash onto the rocks. The hike also provided a really neat and different view of Busan, looking at it from out at sea.

On our last day, we spent about 1 hour at the beach, ate some cold noodles for lunch and headed back to Seoul on the KTX (bullet train), which took 2.5 hours, literally half the amount of time the bus had taken us.

American Souls in Seoul

A few weeks ago, Zak and I traveled to Seoul during some days off. It is about an hour and a half on the subway to get there. We went in one afternoon and visited Changdeokgung palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was beautiful, and crowded with tourists (like most everywhere in Korea) We took an English tour of the palace and it was great. I’m pretty sure my desire to take tours and learn about the history of the place I’m visiting makes me  an adult. After the tour of the palace, we took another tour of the Secret Garden, an enormous forest and garden behind the palace that had beautiful pagodas, koi ponds, flowers and trees. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying trees and flowers in Korea, although, with full disclosure, we have most of them in the States (thanks Mom, for teaching me them!). There was one Gingko tree, about 300 years old hovering over a gorgeous pond. I would die to see it in the fall when all the beautiful yellow leaves are covering the pond.

After the palace tour, we took a short Subway ride over to the Gwangjang Market, which I had read about in a Lonely Planet blurb. The market was so crowded, packed with people and food stalls of all kinds. There were seafood stalls, with fish, squid, octopus and eel, meat stalls serving pig snouts and trotters. Other stalls were serving up Korean pancakes, made from a batter of bean paste and filled with onions, leeks, kimchi and meat if you want. Aromas of all kinds filled the air. It was wonderful. We wandered around for a little while, pushing our way through the crowds to get a good look at the food stalls. After a long time, we finally settled on a stall serving up dumplings and noodle soups made with glass noodles (a clear noodle made with rice). We ordered a serving of kimchi dumplings, one noodle soup and a bottle of makali, a Korean rice wine that is sort of fizzy and is mostly drunk by Koreans when it is raining (it was actually raining at that moment). We were given the traditional Korean side dishes, kimchi, some pickled radishes and pickled cucumbers. Enjoying the respite in the market from the rain, it is to date the most delicious meal I’ve eaten in Korea.

We then rode the subway to our destination for the night: the jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbangs are all over Korea and they are the Korean spas. The one we went to was enormous. They give you a set of pajama type shirt and shorts to wear and you head up to the gender separated locker rooms to change. Zak and I met back down in the common areas, which consist of a snack bar, huge room with massage chairs, various rooms of varying temperatures (ice room, charcoal room, warm herb room, salt room, you name it). We enjoyed the massage chairs and a warm charcoal room. Although jjimjilbangs are technically spas, they don’t always have the same relaxing, zen like atmosphere of American spas. There were tons of people there when we were there, young and old alike.

Each locker room has its own sauna area. I can only speak for the women’s locker room, but there are many different pools of varying temperatures and a plethora of cleaning stations. It is hot and steamy, and no one is wearing a stitch of clothing. The cleaning stations consist of a little stool in front of a shelf and a mirror with a shower hose. The Koreans sit there and clean themselves super thoroughly. They scrub their body, wash their hair, scrub their body, wash their face, scrub, brush their teeth, you get the idea. Most of them have a friend too, and they scrub each other. Its pretty crazy. I was afraid one of the old women was going to come over and start scrubbing me because I was there by myself, but thankfully they didn’t. After a thorough shower and a soak in some of the hot pools, I was tired. I headed up to the women’s sleeping room, which is just a big open room with some burlap mats on the floor. You get a pillow, that resembles a yoga block, only slightly cushier and find a place on the floor to spend the night. There weren’t that many people when I went to sleep, but when I woke up the next morning there were Korean women covering almost every inch of the floor. It was quite a challenge tiptoeing around them!

We took the opportunity of a clear day and hiked up one of Seoul’s 4 ‘Guardian Mountains’. It was paved all the way up, so it wasn’t super challenging. Although the top was super crowded (you can also take a cable car up), the panoramic views of the city on such a clear day were unbeatable. There is also a lovers’ lock deck up top, where thousands of couples have locked a lock to the fences and tossed the key into a box to seal their love. Locks were available for purchase but we didn’t think that 12,000 won (about $12) was a good use of our money. We hiked back down and headed back to Songdo on the long subway ride.

*Sorry there are no photos! I don’t have a way to upload them from my camera here. I promise you’ll get photo full posts upon my return*

Class 5 Meat

Sometimes when I travel, I feel like I just eat my way through places. Korea is definitely one of those places. I love Asian food in general, and being on the continent for the first time has lent itself to enjoying some delicious and unique treats.

Lots of Korean meals are communal, even those eaten in restaurants will be shared by a family or group of friends from the same pot. One of my favorites so far is jigae, which just means stew and usually has noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts, and various meats (spam is a common one, a taste Koreans acquired after the war when it was leftover from the US army). It’s served in a pot and cooked in front of you at the table, and, as with every food, accompanied by kimchi and other various side dishes.

Yesterday, I ate the weirdest thing I’ve probably ever eaten in my life. A vegetarian a year ago, I never would have predicted that one day I would eat, and like, a stew made with the meat of beef spine. That’s right, spine. We went out to lunch for a co workers birthday, and that is what we got. It was served in a big stew pot, and you pulled big hunks of bone out onto your smaller plate, where you picked small pieces of the meat off and dipped them in a watery and delicious mustard sauce. The meat was tender and incredibly flavorful.

I know that spine would probably gross out many Americans, but I think it’s actually awesome that Koreans make a delicious meal out of it. Not only does it taste good, but it’s so much more efficient. We throw away so many parts of animals that we slaughter in the states that could be eaten, but aren’t because of the culture. I think it’s awesome that Koreans, and many other cultures around the world are able to use the majority of the parts, if not all of them, in some way, shape or form to make delicious food.

Here are a few pictures from the meal:

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Outdoor Ed Goes Urban

Prior to leaving for South Korea, I didn’t think that the tragic ferry accident, which was all over international news would have any impact at all on my work contract and what I would be doing with the students. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

On the first day of work, we were all informed by our boss that due to the ferry accident (in which many high school students died), all overnight trips for schools were banned through August. This was a major hit to the Outdoor Ed program at Chadwick and not a great way to start off the contract.

However, in true Outward Bound fashion, we rose to the challenge and with a lot of thought, hard work and creativity, we were able to put together an awesome course for the 8th graders. We ended up having a biking day, a hiking day, a day of climbing and solo, and an adventure race on the last day. Despite the mandate on overnight trips, we did actually camp with the kids, at the local BBQ pit about five blocks from the school.

Nothing about this course was ideal, but I think that it was really eye opening for the students, as they were able to see the city that they attend school (and many, but not all, also live) in a completely new way. It was also eye opening for myself and the other instructors, as we were able to realize that the outcomes of a course can still be the same when held in a different setting. At the end of the course, I felt really proud that the exhausting, last minute work we had put in to planning the course ended up producing amazing results.

Most of the students who attend Chadwick are Korean, although there are some international students as well. Somehow, I ended up with the only two native English speakers (an American and a Kiwi) in the grade in my group. This was actually awesome, because all of the students are required to speak in English, and with two of their peers who couldn’t speak any Korean, they were being very exclusive by speaking in Korean.

Working with these students was a blast. I had twelve of them in my group, and all were incredibly smart, followed directions extremely well, and they were fun! I don’t think I’ve ever worked with students before who don’t need to be reminded to put on sunscreen; they were slathering it on every chance they got! I’ve also never had to ask students to not wash their hands. These students were washing their hands every chance they got, not necessarily a bad thing, but when they were washing their hands between every tent they put away during basecamp break down, it got to be a little bit too much. Overall, they were awesome, and I think all of them, despite never having slept outside prior to the trip, were excited for their 9th grade trip next year.

After the course, Zak and I had a few days off. We start back to work today, just doing projects and such around the school, but I’ll post on our adventures in Seoul very soon!

 

Korea So Far

It is hard to believe that I have been in South Korea for almost two weeks now. So far, I have been very challenged, but I’ve also had many great experiences.

I am working for the Chadwick International School, a K-10 (soon to be K-12) school in a small city on Korea’s west coast called Songdo. Songdo is the world’s most expensive planned city, and it was created by reclaiming land from the ocean. I am really enjoying a gentle break in to city life before moving to NYC this summer, and I think this is a great city for it. There is a ton of green space in the city, which is wonderful. There are several beautiful and large parks. Bike paths are plentiful and it is easy to walk or bike almost anywhere you want to go. My commute to work in the morning is currently a block and a half, but I’m trying not to get used to that, since I know its not realistic for city life in the future.

When I first got here, many things made me feel like I was living in the future. For example, the sink in our kitchen has a foot button to turn it on and off. The washer and the dryer is one machine instead of two (it doesn’t actually work that well though). It is actually illegal here to not recycle, and all of the food everywhere gets composted. I also know that part of the planning that went into Songdo was making the city a sustainable one, so there are some pretty cool ways that the water gets recycled here too. Most of the other instructors dislike the city, but I am enjoying it a lot. There are a lot of great restaurants that aren’t very expensive, and a lot of great opportunities to see and do different things.

I have several days off of work coming up, which I am very excited about. Zak and I will go to Seoul (about 1 hour away) for two days and then to Busan, a southern coastal city surrounded by many national parks and full of old temples for about 4 days.

Stayed tuned for more posts and pictures coming soon!