Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gongju 공주

I went to Gongju today and had a pleasant walk along the walls of Gongsanseong Fortress, which was the capital of the Baekje Dynasty from AD 475 until AD 538. Some of the pavilions within the fortress walls were built later on, and pretty much all of the structures have been repaired or rebuilt at some point.

Geumseoru West Gate Pavilion

View to the east side of Gongju city (population ~ 135,000)


At the end of my walk, a Korean woman introduced herself to me and encouraged her awkward Canadian companion to do the same. The Canadian lives in another city but comes to Gongju on Sundays to go to the church run by this woman's husband. Did I mention that he was awkward? Socially awkward people flock to Korea and seem to do alright here; I often wonder whether their students think they're representative of all Westerners... Within 5 minutes, the woman mentioned that her English institute was looking for more foreign teachers and oh wouldn't I like to work for the government instead of a private institution. I politely informed her that I would definitely be leaving in August and oh doesn't she have such excellent English. Satisfied by the flattery, she continued the conversation in another direction. We were invited into the tourist information office for tea by their tour guide (who made us stop twice for pictures) and I was given more pamphlets. After discussing how to improve English education in public schools and posing polite questions about Gongju to the tour guide, we left, said our goodbyes and then parted ways. I walked to the bus station and caught the hour-long bus ride back to Cheongju. It wasn't a particularly exhilarating trip, but it was still nice to be outside exploring a new place.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sang Soo's Herb Land

I learned last night that the largest herb theme park in Asia is 20 minutes from my apartment. Since I'd never having heard the words "herb" and "theme park" linked together, I decided that Sang Soo's Herb Land merited a trip. After receiving my 3 dollar entrance fee, the attendant found me an English guide map and ushered up the walkway to the first "tour course". The park had 20 or so "tour courses", which were basically just different points of interest, such as a millennium-old pine tree, an English style herb garden, a pond, an interestingly shaped rock, a jade mineral spring, an indoor garden, an herb resting place, an herb restaurant, and an herb gift shop.

The park boasts a collection of about 1,000 types of herbs and the resulting fragrance is the best part of the park experience. Korea has never smelled so lovely!

I ate cot-bap, or flower rice, at the herb restaurant. I was served a large bowl of edible flowers, herbs and sprouts and a separate bowl of herb rice. I was planning on taking pictures, but the restaurant manager, assuming I didn't know what to do, came over, dumped the rice on top of the pretty flowers, added a dollop of red pepper paste and stirred everything up into a less than photo worthy mixture before I could (politely) stop him. Oh well. He was trying to be helpful! The healthiness of the meal only added to my gustatory pleasure; hopefully I can convince others to go back with me for another meal. My guide map says that over 2,000 people from around the world have visited the Herb land especially to try the flower rice and that chefs from Italy and France have complimented the dish. Needless to say, Sang Soo's Herb Land is quite proud of their international reputation!

Sang Soo's Herb Land also has facilities to make special herb water, teas and other herbal products. This is the background information about the water: "Sangsoo Herb Water was made with unique know-how of medical grade of Sangsoo Herb Bioresearch Center that has a world-class technical prowess as far as herbs are concerned. Also, it is natural herb mineral water with a new concept, which is optimally mixed with diverse herb extracts (extracts from herb, herb sprout, and herb flowers) based on pure rock bed water taken out of deep inside of the underground of the pure area with SHCR process. Herb Water Therapy SHCR (Sangsoo's Homogenize Cluster-R): Special processing that stabilizes nutritions and life energy R factor in natural herb extracts for water molecule through homogenization and clusteriation processing." I bought some mint water (1 dollar) and thought it was very refreshing, but I don't know if I'm feeling an increase in the life energy R factor yet...

Dr. Sang Soo has been working since 1973 in horticulture and has received many awards and patents. His dedication and enthusiasm for his work is quite clear and the theme park is a great way to educate and expose people to herbs. At the very least, a trip to Herb Land is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Spring Weekend Around Daegu (3): Palgongsan Provincial Park

A 20 dollar cab ride brought us out of Daegu, Korea's third largest city with around 2.5 million residents, and up a winding road lined with cherry trees, forsythia and azaleas to Palgongsan Provincial Park. We were primarily interested in seeing Donghwasa, the Paulownia Flower Temple, which boasts the largest stone Buddha in Asia. (The frequency with which I've read or seen that claim causes me to doubt its veracity). The temple was founded originally in 493 and was reconstructed in 771 and 832. The stone Buddha is much newer and is dedicated to the peaceful reunification of North and South Korea.

A gate leading to the monk's quarters

This building was off-limits. I saw a monk exit one of the rooms, so perhaps these are prayer rooms or individual monk's cells.

The Unification Buddha. You can't clearly see from the picture, but a sizable bird's nest is tucked up under Buddha's left arm.

People have put little Buddhas and prayer beads into the niches of the stone wall near the Buddha complex.

Outside the temple and closer to the entrance of the park, there's a small commercial area with motels, restaurants and even a drive-in movie theater. We took a cable car (5 dollars round trip) that brought us halfway up the mountain. Though the day was pretty hazy, we had a good view to the surrounding peaks and even caught a glimpse of Donghwasa and nearby hermitages.

There's no need to go inside most Korean restaurants just to check the menu because it's often written or pictorially displayed outside.

The road was just so lovely that we stopped often to take pictures. Though this picture suggests otherwise, there were lots of people driving in or out of the park. We walked as far as we were alongside cherry trees and then we stopped to catch a very crowded bus back to Daegu. Once we got to the intercity bus station, we discovered that all of the buses to Cheongju were sold out. We had to wait 90 minutes for the next bus to Daejeon and then got a bus from there to Cheongju.

After a low-key winter spent mostly in Cheongju, I was happy to enjoy the warm weather and spring flowers in a different part of Korea. The relative ease and low cost of travel makes weekend trips so doable. I'm going somewhere again this weekend, but I'm not exactly sure where. Considering its 12:30am Saturday morning, I should figure out my travel plans and get to bed!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Spring Weekend Around Daegu (2): Lantern Festival

After a few hours of bullfighting, we continued on to a local lantern festival, the Cheongdo Yudeung Festival.

All the women in the chorus wore Hanbok, traditional Korean clothing.

The festival was organized by the local temple, which stood at the top of the hill across the river. Accompanied by the chanting of another monk offstage, these monks peformed some kind of ritual dance.

Hungry for a snack? We weren't tempted by most of the food options and were happy to find a group of women serving fresh noodle soup. The soup was delicious and free; the women insisted that we not pay them.

The free noodle soup was not the only gesture of kindness and generosity we experienced at the festival. A little girl brought a homemade lantern up to Heidi and then ran away giggling before Heidi could thank her. During the monk's ceremony, a woman asked a man to move out of my way so I could get a better view. We chatted with a couple while waiting for the lanterns to be lit and they offered to let us stay overnight at their home. At the end of the evening, a policeman stopped directing traffic to call a taxi to pick us up. It was nice to feel so welcomed.

I enjoyed the couple the most. After the man's initial greeting, he asked Melissa how old she thought he was; her answer of "30" delighted him (and his wife). He then asked where we were all from.
"Canada- Canada- America- America," we answered.
"OH! CA-NA-DA! We love Canada!" was his hearty response.
There was no corresponding love expressed for America. (Interestingly, the exact same thing happened the next day). Any awkwardness that we might have felt went unnoticed and he began to joke with his wife and ask us a few more questions about our experiences in Korea. They were very pleasant and we were all touched that they offered to let us stay at their home after only talking with us for ten minutes.

We took the train back to Daegu and found a cheap love motel to stay in for the night (35$ per room). Our Sunday plans were decided on Sunday morning.
A Spring Weekend around Daegu (1): Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival

Despite the overcast skies and a chill in the air, we were all excited about the Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival. No matador is involved and the bulls don't fight to the death, so we were prepared for some good, morally unobjectionable bullfighting fun. We took the bus from Cheongju to Daegu (2.5 hrs) and then a train to Cheongdo (30 min). The information desk at the fairgrounds had English pamphlets, which included information about Cheongdo, the event schedule, a map of the surrounding area and a picture guide to the different bullfighting techniques. Here's the festival introduction:

"The agricultural tradition leaping forward into the world! The fighting bull will appear here in a role that is entirely different from its typical role as a farming helper, as if it were a member of a farming family in the traditional agricultural society of the past. Bullfighting, which used to be merely a pastime for herd boys on a longer summer day, has been transformed into a type of folk game performed to show off the strength of individual farmers and villages, and gradually developed into a peculiar agricultural feast to strengthen the solidarity between neighboring villages. Bullfighting in Cheongdo is special because it has a 1,000-year history and features one of the typical agricultural folk festivals of Korea."

We arrived just in time for the opening ceremonies, which included traditional drumming and lots of announcements that we couldn't understand.

Bring out the bulls!

Some fights were pretty dull; some bulls wouldn't fight and so the match was called before there was any contact. Most fights looked like this one- the bulls would just lock horns and be at a standstill for awhile.

This fight went on for a long time and I was lucky to catch the dramatic ending!

I'm showing off my 3 dollar shirt in front of one of the examples of "Bulls graffiti".

After watching the "Revenge Big Match", we decided we had sufficient exposure to Korean bullfighting and were ready to move on.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Election Day

There is an election today (Wednesday) to vote for legislators. Here is an example of the type of campaign posters that candidates make:

That's right- they're all referred to by number. Other campaign efforts include supporters waving and bowing to passersby on street corners while wearing sashes displaying the candidate's number. Larger groups of campaigners might stand near a truck that blares music or campaign slogans. Sometimes several women in bright jackets will do little coordinated dances while men in suits huddle around behind them. Some candidates have 3-4 story tall posters hanging from the sides of buildings. Korea definitely has a different take on campaigning than the Americans. I have to applaud them for one thing though; election day is like a holiday and students get the day off from school and most people get the day off from work.
Springtime in Cheongju

The river that bisects Cheongju is lined with the brilliant yellow of the forsythia and the lush whiteness of the cherry blossoms. I took a nice walk on Sunday and again on Monday to enjoy the blossoms and the warm weather. Some children were riding their bikes or were roller blading along the path by the river, but I was surprised not to see more children out on a Sunday.

This playground is near my apartment. Although there were two girls playing, I couldn't help but wonder, where are all the children? Later I ran into one of my students and I asked her what she was doing. "Math".

After my walk, I went to my favorite little teahouse downtown. Here's the entrance:

On my first visit, I was perusing some of the design magazines that are left out and found an article featuring this teahouse. I wasn't surprised- the place is like a magical little retreat in the midst of bright neon signs and fake flowers. I go here whenever I need to relax and de-stress.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

5am Musings

During my first couple weeks of going to bed at midnight and getting up at 5am, I noticed that I was strangely alert immediately upon waking. I thought about how the American economic downturn could give a necessary push to green industries. I amused myself by remembering Bill Clinton's winning slogan, "It's the economy, stupid" and thinking how this could be useful fodder for another Clinton. I was also mindful that I would share all my brilliant thoughts in this blog, so I even scribbled down some ideas. Lucky you. This is what I produced at approximately 5:15 am a week ago:

Greener times-> America's strength= innovation. Will need that now to pull us back into the world economy as leaders. Can't hunker down for long haul and continue this unhealthy dependence on oil.
Can recession pave way for Dem? Why trust Republican machinery after 8 years, a complete debacle, a humiliation that America has fallen?

I was pleased with myself. Here I was coming up with ideas to Save America! Fix the economy! Win the election for the Democrats! after only 5 hours of sleep. How impressive!

Even I'm rolling my eyes now.

Confusion about what earrings to wear soon replaced my serious monologues on politics. My temporary clear-headedness was just a series of early morning flukes! Alas! After some very groggy early mornings, I came to the conclusion that 5 hours of sleep a night is not sufficient. No kidding. (This realization clearly does not count as one of my brilliant thoughts.)

The absurdity of my sleep situation became clearer when I began trying to get to sleep by fantasizing...about the nap I'd be taking the next afternoon.

Only 1 more 5am morning! Hurray!