Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Biking Through Blossoms

This time of year is like nothing no other in Korea. I knew cherry blossoms were a big deal but I had no idea how many there were scattered through the country, and how breathtaking they were. Although cherry blossoms are the most plentiful, there are also a few other trees (I have no idea their names) that make this time of year nothing short of a sensation to witness. Mother nature at her finest.

Last weekend I took a bike trip with some friends down to Gyeongju to see all the blossoms. On Friday evening we headed in to Seoul because our bus was leaving just past 6am on Saturday, not giving us enough time to catch the first subway. We opted for a lavish nights stay in a jimjilbang. Hehehe. Sleep much? I think not. This was my first overnight in a jimjilbang and although I didn't get much shut eye I still enjoyed it and felt very Korean. We basically crashed out on a heated floor, in a large room with about 50 other people, a small pillow and that's it. No mattress, no blanket, and to be honest most of the evening the lights were on, the TV was on, and people were chatting. My biggest issue was the ondol (Korea's under the floor heating system). During the winter it is amazing, but in the jimjilbang, sleeping all night on a hot floor, I was sweating the whole time. I digress..... more to the point, the cherry blossoms.

Saturday morning we had a bright and early start and loaded on a bus headed down to Gyeongju. The weather could not have been more beautiful and as soon as we arrived we picked out our rented metal horses, and off we rode. There were 2 options for bikes, the first being sensible, hearty mountain bikes, and the second was pretty coloured, basket toting, bell ringing, cute little cruisers. My choice was obviously style over function and boy did I pay for it! My more practical counterparts were whizzing up and down hills bumping off the sidewalks and generally having a way better go at it than me, but hey, more importantly, at least I looked good.

We biked for about 20 km on Saturday and it was pretty magnificent. We had a specific route planned but I think we strayed a little and got both lost and found. Most of the roads we went down were lined with blossoms, or winding through parks or overlooking spectacular views. It was amazing. We stopped in a little family run joint for soup to refuel for the afternoon and off we went again. The sky was blue, the air was fresh and everywhere you looked spring was bursting out of it's shell. There were some uphills that made me want to be laying flat back down on the hard jimjilbang floor but other than that it was a great day.

We ended the journey at our guest house and then headed back out for dinner a few hours later. Dinner was basically a Korean/westernized buffet and nothing to write home about. Afterwards we were bussed back to the park and let loose for a night stroll of the area. The park was lovely during the day and it was lit up so nicely in the dark that it added a magical quality to it. There were hoards and hoards of people and the temperatures plummeted so I was frozen, which made it just enough to take the magic part out of it, but still make it a great place to go visit. After an exhausting day of bike riding, dinner and walking we were so tired I  barely had time to complain about my second night sleeping Korean style on a hard floor. Again, I secretly kind of enjoyed it, especially for the slumber party-esque quality of it. In our accommodation we had lots of pillows and blankets and were sharing a room with 4 girls.

Day 2 had us up and ready to go by 7am. Bags were back on the bus and bums were painfully (and strategically) placed back on the bikes. I was soooooo proud to be riding on Sunday. I think the majority of people bailed after Saturday and opted for a leisure day of foot travels. My bottom was really tender, but I trucked on through! We started the day off at Bulguksa Temple, wandered around for a while and then headed back on route with our bikes.

Sunday was smooth sailing. We covered about another 18kms, but the combination of swapping bikes to a sensible one and having a mostly downhill path made for an awesome ride. We off roaded through some paddy fields and made a few more unscheduled pit stops but still managed to be back at the bike shop with lots of time to kill. We grabbed food and headed for the park where all the old royal tomb mounds were and let the day go by.

One of the last stops we made was to pick up some of the traditional barley cakes that Gyeongju is known for. We sampled them in the shops and I grabbed a box full to bring back for my Vice Principal and other teachers (brownie point!). From there we caught a little extra sunshine on an outdoor patio (a rarity in Korea), then met back up at the bike shop, piled in our bus and headed home.

Sunday traffic heading into Seoul is a nightmare so managed to get let off earlier and made out way back to Osan without making the trip into the city which saved us so much time. The only low point of the weekend was bringing a nasty stomach bug home with me. It's my first one in Korea so I shouldn't complain, but Monday and Tuesday were rough!

Anywho, back to the point, Gyeongju was a beautiful city, with such friendly people, and spectacular scenery.  The blossoms in Gyeongju were maybe a little past their fullest point and yet still it was so beautiful to see all these trees in their prime.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Strawberry Fest'ing in Nonsan

With my new found passion for strawberries, this was a festival I could not miss. I had actually been counting down the days for the Nonsan Strawberry Festival. The descriptions of it sounded amazing, with the long list of strawberry related things to do, we had planned to make it a whole weekend affair.

A small group of us were up with the chickens and en route to Nonsan early Saturday morning. We arrived before the masses which was really nice and got to check out all the festival had to offer. There were a few interesting things to see and do. Hmmmmm, what were they again? There was a lot of totally unrelated boring things going on there. I assumed the festival was going to be in a rural area, with strawberry picking being one of the main attractions, but apparently you had to be bussed out for it. Scratch that off my list. I was also looking forward to strawberry hot sauce (none to be found), strawberry kimchi (nope), and strawberry flavoured soju (yeah, none of that in sight either). So there were a few let downs. There was a massive stage with a whole lot of nothing interesting going on. The day before it had rained buckets and no measures had been taken to sort out the mud so we were caked in it pretty much as soon as we got there. Ok, so overall, it was a little disappointing.

Not everything was a let down though. The people watching was awesome. The weather was really beautiful so people were happy and smiling and enjoying the day out. We had really good bits and bites of festival food. The highlight by far was the cake making tent. You bought 2 slabs of angel cake, a bowl of icing and a heap of strawberries and you could go to town with it (we even got creative and bought some jam from the stall next door and added that as an extra layer). We went in on a cake between 5 of us. Carrying it around all day and then figuring out who got to take it home, or dividing it up was too much trouble so the obvious answer was a cake picnic at the festival. Now forks in Korea are a difficult thing to come by in general, never mind in the makeshift area where we were in. So we managed to pilfer some chopsticks and mmmmmmmm, there was the highlight of my day. Five girls, one cake!

There were a few other interesting bits going on like face painting and a random nail tent where I scored a free manicure. By mid afternoon the festival was crawling with people and with all the mud and muck things were getting messy and too busy for much more enjoyment. So after stuffing our faces with delicious strawberry cake, we called it a day. We also made a quick escape out of Nonsan and back to Osan before the crowds departed. Although we didn't score a seat on the 2 hr train ride home, I was pleased to make it out of there without having to stay another day in Strawberry Land. We came, we saw, it wasn't what I expected, but we conquered. (Not to mention our Saturday evening plans included a night out of clubbing in Suwon, with the same group of girls that was waaaaaaaaaay more entertaining than strawberries ;)


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nanta, Shopping & Budae Jigae

With spring in the air, both Jenna and I have had a bee in our bonnet to get out of Osan and into Seoul for some shopping. We've also been talking about going to the theatre to see a Korean production called NANTA. There is a Nanta theatre in Myeong Dong (a great, but insanely over crowded shopping district of Seoul), and coincidentally there are also not one but two, 4-floored H&M stores and a gigantic Forever 21 to boot!

We were up and out of Osan before the clock struck 12 on Saturday and spent a few hours shopping, people watching and generally getting mangled in the hordes of pedestrian only traffic. We stopped for an amazing lunch of budae jigae. Hands downs this is my favorite food in Korea. I think soup in general is one of my favorite things here, but more specifically it is budae jigae (MINUS the spam!) Just as a side note, this soup is a spicy thick broth with cabbage, onions, sprouts, sometimes pork bits, hot dog slices and spam in it. It translates in english to army soup, and was named this because it is what the Koreans used to make with all the leftover meat the American soldiers used to throw out. I am totally aware how unappetizing it sounds, and when I first got here, I found it gross. I am a changed woman though. Budae jigae now runs through my veins.


Okay, Nanta. After a caffeine fuel injection we made our way to the theatre and found our seats. For 40,000 won we had centre balcony tickets with a great view. The show is similar to STOMP, in that all the music is made from random found objects, but this shows revolves around the kitchen. There is minimal talking so language is not an issue, but there is still an amusing story line to follow during the almost 2 hour show. There are only 5 people in the whole performance but they make the equivalent amount of noise to an entire orchestra. There is lots of action and comedy in the show, lots of audience participation, and some pretty awe inspiring musical talent. There are also a few other theatres scattered around Seoul, so check their link for more information and some video footage.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Cheung Wa Dae with the Worldwide Korea Bloggers

Last week was my much anticipated 'official business trip' to Seoul to meet the other Worldwide Korea Bloggers (that's what they've coined us) at Cheung Wa Dae. It started out in a board room at the KOCIS (Korean Culture and Information Services) Head Office.  We did a meet and greet and talked about some of the initiatives for the blog and received really beautiful individual certificates congratulating us for our involvement in the program.

(photo courtesy of Korea.net)

From the office building we had a 5 minute walk to the Cheung Wa Dae Sarangchae Museum. We went to Charim, the museum's beautiful restaurant first, where we were treated to a delicious Korean lunch of bibimbop, or bulgogi. It was really nice to meet some of the other bloggers and find out what everyone does in Korea. Most of the foreigners I know are teachers but we had people from so many different walks of life. There was an actor/translator, student, writer/editor and an Italian in the Korean wine business, just to name a few.

After lunch we were left to peruse the museum. Sarangchae, located just a quick walk from the Blue House, is a political museum. It has exhibits about Seoul, the government, as well as a mock up of the 2010 G-20 meeting room in Seoul and some very Korean-esque touristy things to do. This last part, may have been the highlight of my day. There was a  blue screen photo op to take a pic with President Lee Myeong Bak and the First Lady Kim Yoon-ok, amazing! Politics have never really caught my attention but I couldn't pass up an opportunity like this one.

(this may be my favorite picture in Korea thus far)

Next stop, Cheung Wa Dae. The process of getting into the grounds was a little painful and time consuming but I kept reminding myself of where I was going and then all the security checks and wait time made sense.  Cheung Wa Dae refers to the actual Blue House, but the grounds consist of many out buildings and lots of green space. For obvious reason we were only taken to certain areas and not permitted in any of the buildings. A lot of information was conveyed in Korean so I missed it, but just being there was a great opportunity. There were important security looking men, all dressed in black suits, sunglasses and ear pieces which just added to the atmosphere. As for photos, I included a few, but most places we were told to keep the cameras lenses capped.

Our tour of Cheung Wa Dae was the end of our day. We were all given thoughtful and unexpected presents just for attending and being part of the blog. We received matching mugs of the Blue House, a Korean cd, a book on Korea, information on Kocis, and a mother of pearl business card holder with a matching USB drive. Thanks KOCIS!

Overall, a great trip to Seoul. Nice to put a face to some of the names of the Worldwide Korea Bloggers I have been reading about and even nicer for the organizers to host such a day to welcome us.

(photo courtesy of Paul Matthews)