Monday, October 18, 2010

Hiking Seoraksan

(NOTE: written three days after the hike, posted 3 weeks later)

Hello Friends!

I am in so much pain today! Three days after our sunrise hike to Seorak Mountain and I'm STILL feeling the pain. Stairs are so daunting and difficult that I missed my train because i couldn't speed up! Wow. All that being said though, it was a wonderful and beautiful hike.

We (myself, Jamie, and Christina) traveled with a new group for this trip, the SeoulHiking Group. It was exciting to meet new people and I really like the organizer, he's aKorean and is Fluent in both Korean and English so it made for a nice trip. Warren (the organizer) is an avid hiker and this group has a hike almost every week. It's nice to have finally gone somewhere with them so we'll be more comfortable attending these hikes in the future.

We met everyone Friday night at 11:30 and hopped on the bus to Seoraksan (san means mountain). We arrived around 2:30AM and promptly began to hike (after being shocked by the winter weather - Siberian winds, literally). The hike started with this HUGE
staircase. I was soon regretting starting off so quickly and was thankful when I got to the top so I could begin to just walk, but oh my, was I wrong. The entire hike, both up and down, was essentially straight up (or down). It was like 15 hours on a stair master. I'm not used to such a hike. I'm more familar with a hike that includes a few plateaus or slight upgrades. Maybe some switchbacks to cut the intensity. OH NO. Not to be had. When we first arrived we had started out with the idea of doing the 16 hour hike. About 20 minutes in I realized that I was SORELY mistaken. We re-adjusted our plan and instead did the 11 hour hike (well... 11 hours for the seasoned hiker, it was about 15 hours for us). Almost 20km all told. WOW.

Aside from the strenuousness of the hike, the mountain was beautiful. It's like every corner was a "OH!" or "WOW." It was really cool because we were hiking in the dark for about 5 hours and when the sun came up it was really remarkable. We hardly knew where we were going in the dark, so when the sun finally came out, we were all of a sudden 1000s of feet up in the sky. And is was peak foliage time! The Korean country side has an abundance of the Japanese maple (don't know what it's called in Korean, I'd wager something totally different...), which turns a beautiful flaming red, so those were interspersed with some yellowing oaks and aspen-like trees, but there was certainly a higher percentage of evergreens. The cliffs were unbelievable, a lot were so sharp and jagged that they were bald, so they stood in great contrast to the trees, and there was something going on with calcium leeching out in some areas, because in places these huge cliffs were just bleach white. So gorgeous.

So aside from being a really interesting hike in terms of physical endurance and the crazy start time, there's the uniquely Korean aspect of this trip. This mountain is sort of like the Korean Mecca (Koreans are huge into hiking and this is considered the best place to go, and this was the best time to go). This means that we were not the only people starting at hike at 3:00AM. There were 1000's of people hiking. When we got to the first peak you could you could just see this endless snake of flashlights on the trails ahead and behind. Wish our camera was better at night photos!

However, part of the joy and struggles of hiking with thousands of other people is that you constantly feel like you're going slow because you're being out-paced by these 60 year old women (no offense to the age-it was just shocking) BUT there's ALWAYS a line of people behind you. So you're really ahead of someone at any moment. HOWEVER, in Korea, it is perfectly acceptable to just push past people when they are walking to slow. Which, on a sidewalk is annoying-but relatively safe. On the side of a mountain, in the middle of the night with a hefty breeze and a paltry little flashlight it makes it terrifying! I started running my hand along side the mountain so people were forced to pass me on the outside. Thankfully, everyone was going in the same direction so it was only one way traffic.

OH! and becuase there were so many people and only one narrow trail twice we got stuck in traffic and had to stand in line for 20 minutes. That was potentially the worst park of the hike because you were so sweaty from CLIMBING STAIRS for 4 hours and you just stand still with the wind blowing. BRRR!

Anyway, we made it to the summit (5 hours AFTER our group leader) And, Ok. Fine. Not really the summit. The summit was an extra 20 minutes up, but I had no interest and people told me that it was cloudy and you couldn't see anything. I'm not upset to have missed it. SO, we made it to the "almost summit" 7 hours after starting. 7 HOURS. I did mention it was almost completely VERTICAL. Oh man. Of course the summit shelter was packed with people eating. (If we were really korean, we would have packed a 7 course meal like almost everyone else was eating, complete with camping stoves and all that jazz). AND, had we gotten there two hours earlier we could have taken a nap. They had nap rooms! Unfortunately, when we arrived they were cleaning so that in an hour when the people who started on the OTHER side started to arrive the could nap.

So, we munched on some almonds and we started down the other side of the mountain. Listen. Going down is NO easier that going up. In fact, I think I rolled my ankle no less than three times and my knees were seeing a constant song to the rest of my body, "idiot" "moron" with each step. Right. So again. 7 hours later we arrived at the bottom.

Yes. That math comes out to 14 hours. Yes, this was the 11 hour hike that took us 14 hours! Um. Remarkable. My legs hurt for 3 days straight. Of course, now that it's over I'm already looking at the next hike this guy is planning. It's impossible for me to remember the pain clearly now. Obviously I need to learn my lesson two or three times.

In reality though, it was a beautiful hike (aside from the thousands of people) and I'd even say that it was worth it.

The next day we went to the beach and a few of us went swimming. The rest of us played beach volleyball. That was pretty awesome and potentially where I sustained the most injuries.

Exciting things About Korea:

Hiking Age:
Hiking is not a past time for young people. The avid hikers in Korea all seem to be middle aged married couples.

Hiking Snacks:
As I mentioned above there is no 'light' meal on the mountain. People bring full a full on meal to be cooked, INCLUDING side dishes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Masks and Weddings

Hello Friends!

We've been having a really jam packed October thanks to our friend Meaghan Shanahan who is a Number 1 planner! Literally every weekend we've been traveling. It's been great. This coming weekend we're going on a surise hike to Seoraksan- a gorgeous mountain about 3 hours away from Seoul and in two weeks
we're going to the Busan International Fireworks Festival! YAY! Anyway, i'm sure you're dying to know what we've been up to so dive in!

This past weekend a friend of ours got married so we went to his wedding. His wife's family is from Daegu-a city about 2 hours south by the Highspeed train. Anyway. Wedding. Wow. I've been to about 3 weddings in Korea-all of them being a Koreanized western wedding. White gowns, father walking the bride down the aisle, speeches and songs, bowing to parents, all that jazz. there are, of course some very different things about it but, more or less, it all looks familar.

ANYWAY, we went to a traditional Korean wedding. They're so infrequent now adays that almost none of my coteachers had been to one. So first, let me say that I had no idea what was happening or why. There was a man explaining the ceremony to everyone present but he was, of course, explaining in Korean.

Ok. coolest part of the wedding you ask? Um, the Palaquins obviously! They were both carried in on Palaquins. How cool is that?
Desmond and Serena's Wedding Here she comes! Desmond and Serena's Wedding

Oh! and the live chicken and rooster that were on the wedding table. I asked the women who worked there why and she said she didn't know. I'm guessing fertitlity. Isn't that usually the chicken thing?
Desmond and Serena's Wedding  A live Chicken!  There's a rooster on the other side. Desmond and Serena's Wedding

ANYWAY,they were carried in. Desmond went and bowed to a duck (wooden, not real) that was carried in by our friend Eric. Then he walks back up the aisle to meet his bride. She gets carried in, steps out and follows him down the aisle. They sit on either side of the wedding area with the wedding table between them and blocking their view of each other. I really like that. I think it makes it so much more exciting when they can finally stand up and face each other. (it imagine it's a throw back to when you really never saw your bride/groom until the day of) Ok, so now there's lot's of ceremony happening, and lots of bowing and rinsing of hands and sipping of tea and eating of cakes that they are doing simultaneously or right after each other. I really liked the part where they took a sip of tea and then the cup got passed to the other so they could sip from each other's glass, and then the tea got mixed and they drank again. As a side note, there's no "rehearsal wedding" in Korea so poor Desmond, who doesn't speak any Korean has this women , who I don't think speaks any English gesturing for him to walk here, bow, eat this. Everything a complete surprise to him as it comes up. (my favorite being when he had to eat an obviously unsavory egg cake) Anyway, after all this, they finally stand up and face each other at the table. Really exciting. Desmond was smiling real big. Super cute! And then I think they're married! Desmond's brother gave a speech at the end and Desmond started to tear up. Jin, another friend, was translating and there were lots of appreciative nods from the audience. It was really lovely and beautiful.

Desmond and Serena's Wedding Desmond and Serena's Wedding

After the wedding we went into Daegu to drink. We opted for discount bar-drinks from the family mart and hanging in the park. However, not before we stopped at the bar with adult juice boxes and SPARKLERS! wow. And the wedding couple came out to hang with us. Awesome.

We retired around midnight to our cozy Korean style room for 7 of us. We have this great group of people we hang out with here. I'm glad we all get along well enough to sleep in one room and share a bathroom together. It makes everything so much more lovely.

Ok. so that was this most recent weekend. The weekend before we were in Andong, the most traditional city in Korea, for the Korean Mask Festival. Again, good thing we get along with our friends because we spent the nights (2 of them) together in almost one room. Korean style house and there were 10 of us.

We tried to go to the mask festival last year but it was cancelled due to swine flu. BOOO. Anyway, we went this year. Awesome.

Imchang Gak
We got there Friday night, settled into our hundred year old Korean house. The main room having no insulation so you could see through the wooden floor boards to the ground. PERFECT! We drank and chatted until bed time in the ondol heated side rooms. We woke up the next morning to boiled potoates with cinnamon sugar (a combination I never thought of before) green onion pajeon (Korean pancake) and shikae (Korean sweet rice tea). It was wonderful!
IMG_1223 IMG_1222

Hahoe Village
We then grabbed cabs to the Traditional Style Village. Think Plymouth Plantation except people actually really live here. It was beautiful. I think, hands down, the prettiet place I've been in Korea. There was this gorgeous river next to it (the name "Hahoe" is actually a word for how the river curves around the village. It's surrounded almost on three sides by the river). And mountains all around and TREES. Only trees. No apartment building, no factories, no highways. It was amazing as to not see any of those things is extraordinarily rare. Usually they pepper any view. Anyway, we watched the Chinese mask dance at Hahoe and then hopped a bus back to the main festival site.

IMG_1057 IMG_0935

OH! And we played some traditional games.

The festival site was super fun. It was like a country fair back home. Lots of food and games and people selling handicrafts. It was great and I was so happy to be there. We watched belly dancers (lots actually), the Mexican dancers (my favorite), the Thai Dancers (OK, but the fake fight scene with audience participation was hilarious) and a bit of "Buy a Happy Flower" "a mask dance about how Koreans had to part with cows who used to be part of the family." Yeah.

Anyway, my favorite performance was the JaJang Nori. This was a traditional "game" that they playpretending to be the east and west. If the east (or maybe the west) wins, they will have a good harvest. It consisted of hundreds of men carrying the two leaders on platforms shaped like triangles and they would regularly get raised straight up in the air. At one point they attach to each other at 45 degree angles and then all of the people run in a circle. Quite a site to see 100s of people running. wow!

Also, the Korean foods convention was great. We sampled a number of tasty and not so delicious ingredients. One of the most interesting, and not terrible, was the chocolate covered black garlic. It tasted a bit like chocolate covered gummies.

So, as you can see we've been busy. It's been a fun second year in Korea. We've decided that since we're staying a second year we really don't want it to go to waste.

Exciting things about Korea:

Hottoek: It's this rice cake that they fry and with cinnamon sugar in the middle. Oh my gosh! it's so good. It's like fried dough except the delicious isn't ontop it's gooey and hot in the middle! MMMM!

Deom: Free things. I knew this was part of Korean culture as you get something free whenever you go anywhere. Extra samples at the cosmetic store, sodas at a resturant, but it's really much bigger than a casual small thing. It's so common in Korea that there's a specific word for it and it's part and parcel of Korean Customer Service (which is EXCELLENT). I think it fits in with the concept of Gift Giving. People are constantly giving gifts. Today every teacher in the school got a yogurt from a Teacher who won an award and last week we all got rice cake from the principal because her father-in-law had passed and she wanted to thank everyone who came to the funeral.

GPS: Everyone has a GPS in their car. (at least all the cars I've been in or have awkwardly peered into) They great for directions in Korea becuase addresses are organized a little differently here. There are no street names and numbered houses on the streets. Instead blocks are numbered within districts within larger districts. And the buildings on the blocks ARE numbered but they are numbered by which ones were built first. And of course, I use the work "block" loosely. It's more like an area that has streeets and alleys all through it. So you can see how a GPS would be handy.