Monday, August 30, 2010

25th Birthday Party

Yesterday was my birthday. Some friends and I got dinner at Pattaya in Itaewon after Korean class.

From there we walked around looking for a bar to hang out at. Finally we found our way to a new bar called The Bulldog, which is above Gecko's. It's an 80's and 90's bar. It's not really anything special, but it wasn't too noisy or crowded, and they took our requests for 80's music. Our waiter was super attentive and brought us some forks and plates for a cake without us even having to ask!

Here's my cake. It's a Paris Baguette cake. They're not really my favorite cakes in the world, but this one at least had lots of fruit on top. I think I ate more fruit than cake, but I was happy!

The boyfriend bought me flowers from one of the flower ladies that wander Itaewon, too! All in all, it was a good birthday!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The newly opened Gwanghwamun and another peek around Gwanghwamun Plaza

On Liberation Day (광복절-光復節) August 15, 2010, the newly reconstructed Gwanghwamun was open to the public. As long as I can remember, Gwanghwamun has been covered due to the construction, and I guess has been since 2006.

The history of Gwanghwamun is quite an interesting one. There's a good Wikipedia article here, but basically it was built in the Joseon Dynasty in 1395, then it was destroyed durring the Imjin war with Japan in 1592. It was reconstructed in 1867, but was torn down and relocated slightly during the Japanese occupation to make way for the Japanese Governor General Building. Then it was destroyed again during the Korean war and rebuilt with concrete in 1963. Finally in 2006 they decided to restore it to it's original position and original grandeur which is now finally viewable. (Please don't quote me here because the more sources I read, I keep getting slightly different dates and facts... this seems to be the closest to the truth I can get)

The location of the gate is very important because it must line up correctly with the rest of Gyeongbukgung palace behind it, but even more importantly, it must be in the correct fung shui (pungsu in Korea), or correct alignment with the mountain behind and the river in front. When the Japanese relocated the structure, it was no longer in the proper alignment with not only the palace, but with it's natural surroundings. (See here for another article)

Sejeongno, which runs north past the Cheonggyechong up to Gwanghwamun is a very historic street as well. Last summer a plaza was opened, running down the center of the street. Here you can find the famous monument to General Lee Sunshin, but that's just the begining.

Here is the statue of Lee Sunshin. As you can see, there are fountains on all sides, which I like to think of as Lee Sunshin's water park. Kids have a ball playing in the water here all summer long. It's like going to Oceanworld, I suspect, but without the lines and the prices.

If you keep walking past the wet children you'll come across a giant statue of King Sejeong, the most famous of the Korean kings and the inventor of Hangul amoung many other things.

Go around to the back side and you'll find an entire museum dedicated to King Sejong the Great and General Lee Sunshin below. The admission is free, so there's no reason no to check it out while you're in the area.

Turtle Ship

There was also a performance of traditional musical instruments here when I visited. First each played some more traditional music, but then got together and played some more modern songs with their instruments.

After leaving here I stumbled upon yet another museum. This was called Green Growth Korea and it was just a small museum dedicated to ideas for a greener future. It was also free, so I went in to check it out.

Here is Korea's energy usage for the past number of years. The last column is a projection for the year 2030.
Here is a model city with lots of little ideas for energy production and conservation. One cool one I liked was "solar trees" which were poles with solar panels on the top. I think solar panels are going to have to get a bit more efficient in order for that one to work out though...

When you get a chance, be sure to check out the new Gwanghwamun, Gyeongbukgung Palace and everything around Gwanghwamun Plaza. Everything except palace has free admission, so it can make for a cheap weekend afternoon. Take line 5 to Gwanghwamun Station or Line 1 or 2 to City Hall and walk 5 minutes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

내 여자 친구는 구미호 (My Girlfriend is a Nine Tailed Fox)

I've found a new Korean drama that I'm addicted to. It's called My Girlfriend is a Nine Tailed Fox. It's a rather silly drama but extremely fun to watch. Actually, I'm watching it without subtitles... it's not to say that my Korean is that good, but I understand about 25% of the dialouge, and then I get the boyfriend to translate everything that I don't get... I should go back and watch it with the subs because I think I'd understand it much more....

If you like silly comedies, this is for your. Here is the first episode with subtitles that I found on YouTube. Check it out!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jimmy Carter arrives in the DPRK

Jimmy Carter has arrived in Pyongyang in order to negotiate for the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an English teacher from South Korea originally from Boston (only 10 minutes from my house incidentally) who crossed over the border into North Korea from China. He was sentenced in April to hard labor and a fine of $700,000 dollars.

This is the second former president of America who has had to rush in to save Americans who have made their way into North Korea. In my opinion, Gomes' case was the strangest of them all. While the others were high profile people, journalists and a Christian activists, Gomes was more or less a nobody, so to speak. I remember when I read initial reports about the incident, reports stated that he went in because he wanted to live there and looked up to the regime. Later, reports came out that he was very religious and was possibly trying to repeat Robert Park's mission to the DPRK. Unfortunately for this guy, people haven't put such a priority for getting him out of there since he is more or less a nobody. I'm interested to see how Carter's negotiations go to get him released.

While Carter is in town, he will be trying to ease the tensions between the North and South.

I recommend checking out the NYtimes article here about Carter's visit, and another article about the labor camps here from Newsweek.

Incidentally, I was horrified to read in the Newsweek article that in 1996 there was testimony to the existence of some American POWs that had been captured during the Korean war and were still alive. Meaning that there is a slight possibility that one or two of those guys could still be alive today, still in prison...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bukhansan (북한산)

In preparation for a hike up Hallasan on our upcoming trip to Jejudo this Chuseok break we've decided to go hiking every weekend until that time. I mentioned our first hike on a mountain near Halmoni's house from last week here, but this week, since we weren't in that area we wanted something a little closer. I suggested Bukhansan, a mountain on the northern side of Seoul. It's pretty famous, but I've never been.

We woke up a bit late on Sunday morning, and then after a phone call to my mom and an unexpected phone call from a friend we didn't leave the house until after 3pm. From there we had to walk to Dongdaemun and take a 1/2 hour bus ride to the mountain. Even from the bus stop we had to walk a bit more to get to the actual start of the mountain path, therefore, we didn't even start climbing until after 4pm.

I was a bit worried, but from the looks of the trail map, there were plenty of options for coming up and down the mountain. Bukhansan has many peaks, so one could hike for 2 hours or 10 hours depending on what you felt like doing.

The hike up to the ridge of the mountain took about 45 minutes, but from there it was a piece of cake. You can walk along the ridge and climb up and down various peaks. We started from Bibong peak and made our way west for some time.

The views from up there are quite spectacular. On one side you can see all of Seoul, and the other are the sheer rock faces of Bukhansan that go on and on.

View of Seoul from the top.

Comming down proved to be a bit more of a problem though. As I mentioned, Bukhansan has a lot of steep rock faces. Going up you don't notice how steep they are, but going down is quite treacherous. At one point we were told by a passing ajossi that the trail ahead wasn't worth taking and he suggested we follow him. It started out looking like a path, but before I knew it I was bouldering my way down the side of the mountain following this ajossi that looked like he knew what he was doing.

This was the actual path, just to give you some idea what I was trying to go down.

Finally, we met up with the actual trail again and started to make our way out of the woods. It was getting dark and I was getting worried a bit. But, there were still hikers about so it was a bit comforting to think that if I were stranded in the woods after dark, I wouldn't be the only hiker stranded in the woods. Finally we got out just as the street lights were popping on... another 10 minutes and we would have been hiking in the dark...

Anyway, we decided we'd like to go back and hike here for the day. It's so beautiful up here, and it's so close to the city it makes for an easy day trip. I definitely recommend hiking for a while up here, whether you have just a few hours or all day, it will be worth your time!

Domestic Bliss and a performance by Eric Scott Nelson

Saturday evening I found myself at an art exhibition called Domestic Bliss, an exhibition put together by the International Artists Community here in Korea. Saturday night was their opening event and a friend of mine, Eric Nelson, had mentioned that he would be performing.

I must say, I'm no artist and, while I think that art is pretty to look at, I don't usually "get it". Therefore it's hard to find me at one of these things. We wandered around the two small galleries and then hit up the food table while waiting for Eric's performance. While munching down on the snacks a Korean woman seemed very surprised to see me and my boyfriend. She looked vaugly familiar too, but until she said where she knew us from, I hate to say that I couldn't remember at all. Back about a year ago, she and some music students had come to my Korean class to teach us some traditional Korean songs. I didn't take any pictures of the event, so it never got posted here... but this woman had just happened to be my teacher on that particular day! So, we started chatting it up over snacks and free beer and it comes to turn out, they were performing with our friend Eric. Soon after that, they changed into lovely hanbok and I had to get my photo with them!

Finally it was time for the performance to start. I had heard that Eric's performances tend to be a little strange and interesting, so I was curious to see what he was performing this night. I had heard talk of rice and singing, and the title was "Eric and the Sirens", the girls, of course being the sirens.

It began first with Eric making a house with light blue colored rice... and then pouring rice over himself until the can was empty.

Then entered one of the singers. She started pouring a darker blue line of rice along the ground, and eventually making another house for Eric to sit in. She poured rice over his face until that container was empty too...

Then entered the second "siren" to lure him away from the first and down a deeper blue trail to another house...
...Where she drowned him in the dark blue rice...

I must say it was certainly interesting to watch, and totally out of the ordinary. I must admit I didn't "get it" as usual, but upon talking to him after the show, he explained that the Sirens were luring him into the depths of the sea and slowly drowning him.

Here's us and Eric. I think you can still see the blue on his face from the acrylics he used to make the rice blue. :-)

While I was at the exhibition, I happened to bump in to Joy from the blog Foreign/er. This is now the second blogger I've met around but I always feel it's really strange to meet another blogger. I mean, when you follow someone's blog, you start to feel as if you know them. But, then when you see them in real life, you remember that you don't actually know them at all and you're not sure if it's proper to go over an make conversation with this total stranger that you happen to read about several times a week. I finally got up the courage to say hello, and I'm glad I did. Joy seems really great! If any of my readers happen to see me around, please stop and say hello!

The exhibition is open from August 18th- August 28th at Jay Gallery & Na Gallery (SK HUB PLAZA B-107/8) in Insadong and has contributions from Korean and international artists.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Please, don't steal the cheese

Nowadays, E-mart does carry a fairly large selection of cheese, but I was surprised to see the new addition on my last visit. Look carefully, nearly all the cheese is in little locked boxes. The closest thing I've seen to something like this is the plastic locks they put on CDs and DVDs at home. Therefore, the only thing I can imagine these little boxes are doing is preventing cheese theft. I didn't realize that cheese theft could be such a problem, but at the price and the concealability (is that a word?) of cheese, I guess it would be easy to use a 5 finger discount on these. But, no longer!

Any other theories? I'm still having a hard time conceiving the fact that e-mart put anti-theft devices on cheese...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Strange Day

Today was filled with really random things, I've got to put it in words before I forget something.

We decided to take the subway to Halmoni's house today rather than the car because there's usually so much traffic. So, while waiting forever to catch the Jungang line to Yangsu station, the boyfriend pulled out his cell phone and started to play Chinese Chess (Changgi). I got upset that he was going to play by himself, so he started to teach me how to play. Then, amazingly (I'm easily impressed by technology), he used bluetooth to link our two phones together so we could play against each other using two phones. Changgi is pretty hard... it's pretty similar to regular chess in some ways, but you've got to learn new directions for all the pieces. If I ever get better at it, I'd like to make a post about it, because it is a cool game.

That kept us entertained until we got to Halmoni's house. Then it was time to eat. Usually we eat a very Korean lunch here, normally samgyupsal, soup, and lots of side dishes. But, today, we brought some thai curry that the boyfriend had cooked up that morning at our house. We warmed it up and served it. His whole family immediatly said "매워!" "It's spicy!", which is amusing since Koreans are always asking me something like, "Can you eat our spicy Korean food?" But, they ate what was in their bowls but no one went for seconds. We didn't take the leftovers with us but I have a feeling it will go straight in the trash tonight.

We had been planning on going hiking in the afternoon since we're planning on hiking Hallasan, the tallest mountain in Korea this coming September for Chuseok. We're really out of shape, so we've decided to climb one mountain ever weekend until we leave for Jejudo. We decided to wait a little and digest our food before leaving though. We started watching this show called "My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox" and got a little sucked in. There's another drama about the nine-tailed fox that plays during prime time lately, but this is more of a comedy than a serious drama, and it takes place in modern day times unlike the other one. I was happy that I was able to understand about 25% of the dialogue, but that means I was still missing a lot. The boyfriend had to fill in some parts for me.

We wound up watching nearly two episodes of the show before we were about to head out for our hike. Then, the boyfriend's father told us that the lawn had to be mowed. It was another hour before we got to leave. We had been planing to take the subway one stop and hiking a mountain there, but due to the fact that it was nearly 4 o'clock at this point we decided to try hiking a mountain that was a little closer.

It was about 3 km to the top, but it went along the ridge of several hills before assending to the top of the mountain. It was mostly a gentle up and down hike until the end. The only difficult part about ascending was being attacked by bugs the entire time. The climb down the other side was actually quite strenuous. I'm glad we didn't climb up that side because we would have been dead long before we reached the top.

When we had nearly reached the bottom, we came across a temple and decided to check it out. I had seen this temple several times from afar and had always wanted to check it out because it is rather unique.

Apparently, this is the temple that the boyfriend's grandmother visits often, and the boyfriend saw a monk he thought he recognized from his childhood. He went over to say hello, and when the monk realized who my boyfriend was, he invited us in for dinner. We couldn't really refuse, and I was curious about getting dinner at the temple.

Dinner was nice, some rice cakes, rice, kimchi soup (김치국), and some other typical vegetable side dishes. After we had eaten dinner, we were encouraged to go and meet the head monk's mother who lives upstairs in the house where we ate dinner. When she realized who my boyfriend was, she was surprised and shouted "Ah, so this is the American girlfriend!". Apparently the boyfriend's grandmother had mentioned me to this woman. It was a little startling to meet a totally random stranger who knew of my existence....

After meeting that halmoni, we were brought over to an air conditioned temple to have coffee and watermelon with the head monk. He encouraged us to get married quickly and have a baby. He also talked for a while with the boyfriend giving some life advice. Then, when we were trying to say thanks for everything, but we'd better get going, he suggested that he teach us some breathing techniques.

He tended to the boyfriend while a female monk came out of the other room and taught me. She said a lot of things in Korean about why we were breathing like this but I understood only maybe 20%... Basically, I think she was trying to tell me that I need to practice breathing with my stomach rather than my chest and lungs. So, as I breathed she held my chest down and forced me to fill my stomach with ever breath. I guess while you breath in that manner, you can breath in good energy and release bad energy as you exhale.

After she finished with the breathing, she sent me back to the monk to get a sort of healing massage. Basically, he rubbed down my arms while breathing in a very particular way, then cracked every bone in my body from my neck down to my toes.

After that was finished, he instructed us to stretch tomorrow morning, otherwise we'll be sick for three days since he sort of infused our bodies with energy or something. Seems a little strange to me, but stretching never hurt anyone, so I'll try to remember when I wake up.

After this, we made our way out of the temple promising to bring Halmoni to the temple soon. By now it was dark and we made our way down the road down the mountain. The street goes directly out to the highway, and so we walked along the side of the highway back to the subway station. While there's plenty of room on the side of the road for walkers or bicyclers, it was still pretty scary to do at night.

That was the end of the strangeness. We went home, played some more Changgi on the subway and were home by about 9 o'clock.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Korea Traditional Cultural Experience Center: Incheon Airport

Ok, Though I could write forever about Cambodia, I'm afraid my viewers who really care about Korea are getting bored.

This is why I LOVE living in Korea.

I discovered for the first time in Incheon Airport the "Korea Traditional Cultural Experience Center" while waiting for my flight to Cambodia.

While I got kicked out of a restaurant in Guangzhou airport for trying to order one beer to split between two people because it was the cheapest thing on the menu, the Korean airport welcomed me with open arms to watch a free performance of traditional Korean dance and music. While I watched the dance, they gave me a nice paper fan (with a real wooden handle, not the cheap plastic sort) and let me paint my fan with nice acrylic paints. Kind staff walked around refilling paint and helping new guests and no one asked me to check out the overpriced gift shop in the back of the Experience Center.

I'm still convinced that Korea has got to be one of the best countries in the world to live in, once again. Check this place out on your next trip out of Korea!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Countryside of Battambang

While there isn't a whole lot to do in Battambang, there is plenty to see. It's not a tourist city, and so there aren't much in the way of museums or palaces. After our cooking class, which was about 3 hours and the bamboo train which was about 1 hour, we realized we had done nearly everything there is to do close to the city. From there it was time to get out into the countryside.

Me on our motorbike after getting caught in a sudden rainstorm.

After our cooking class finished, our teacher hooked us up with our own motorbike which we rented from his neighbor. We even got helmets which was a luxury I didn't get while I drove around in Bali. We rode the bike to the bamboo train, and from there we just got out of town and drove. We didn't really know where we were going... but just watching the goings on along the sides of the road was entertainment enough. A few times we even got off the main, paved road and went down some dirt roads to see what was down there. Mostly, lots of houses, animals and rice fields.

Me and one of the hundreds of cows we passed on our ride around the countryside on the bike.

Happily riding our bike, not realizing those clouds were about to open on us minutes later...

We liked the motorbike, but we thought we'd give our skin a break from the intense sun and take a tuk-tuk around the next day. Our tuk-tuk driver knew where he was going so we actually saw a few sights.

Lots and lots of fruit bats.

First stop was to see some fruit bats. I thought bats should be sleeping during the day, but something woke these guys up and they were flying all around outside a temple.

Another Angkor ruin.

Next was another Angkor ruin, up about 300 some-odd stairs in the heat. It wasn't too bad, but they convinced us for the next stop we should take a motortaxi to the top since it was a much longer, steeper hike.

A look down into the Killing cave.

A temple on top of the mountain where the killing cave is located.

From there we went to the Killing Caves where the Khmer Rouge used to throw the bodies of their victims. Here, there was another small monument full of bones, another with clothes and a third with skulls. You can enter the cave and see a small temple that they have assembled below, but, of course, all the remains have been removed from the cave.

Picking rice.

We saw a little more of the countryside as we made our way back to Battambang. It's so beautiful and peaceful here it's definitely worth making a stop in Battambang to check out the scenery.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Bamboo Train: Battambang, Cambodia

Many years ago, a railway was built in Cambodia. As time passed and problem after problem arose in Cambodia the railway fell into disuse by the trains that once ran on them. I've heard that there's still a train that runs once a week on these well worn tracks, moving at a snail's pace to go from Phenom Penh to Battambang in about 14 hours (when the bus takes 5).

But, leave it to the ingenuity of the Khmer people to make use of these nearly abandoned tracks. The locals have constructed the norry, or "Bamboo Train" as the tourists call it. Quick to be assembled and disassembled, these motorized bamboo carts run up and down the tracks carrying locals getting from point A to point B and tourists out for a joy ride.

As you can see here, there's only one track, which you'd think might cause some problems. But, no, as you see in the next picture, it can be quite easily lifted off the tracks and the axles and wheels are tossed off to the side in a moment's time.

Who has the right of way? Well, of course, the car with the most passengers!

I wouldn't call this speedy transportation by any definition. The constant stopping, dismantling and reassembling makes for rather slow going. But, for Khmer people its a cheap and convenient way to get from one place to another. If you happen to stop by Battambang while you visit Cambodia, be sure to check out the bamboo train!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nary's Kitchen : Cooking Class in Battambang

After getting off the boat we found our hotel (which is another story in itself), got some food and went searching for a cooking class. We had read about some people who had taken cooking classes here in Battambang and it seemed perfect for us. My boyfriend was really excited about it since he loves to cook. We first went to the Smokin' Pot cooking school, and at the time they already had 5 people signed up for the class. We were hoping for something a little more personal, so we thought we'd check out Nary's Kitchen, which was advertised in the free guide book we picked up in Siem Reap.

We met a gentleman out front who explained to us all about the class (and how, in his opinion, it was better than the Smokin' Pot). We were interested, but when he told us we were the only ones to sign up so far for the next day's class, we were sold. $7 per person and he gave us a pack of recipes to choose what we wanted to cook. We chose Amok (famous Khmer dish), green curry and fried spring rolls. I guess that's the menu everyone picks, though they have much larger selection of dishes to choose from.

The next morning at 8:30 we arrived for the class. He took us to the market and showed us all the ingredients that we needed to make our three dishes.

He bought a fresh fish that was still flopping around in its basket when the vendor chopped its head off for us and removed the unwanted parts.

Then we brought everything back to the kitchen to get to work

They laid out everything so we could remember the ingredients for later. Things like garlic are easy to get in Korea. That green onion looking thing is actually lemon grass, not so common here. Same with those leaves. No way I'm ever gona find anything like that in this country...

First we made the paste for the amok and green curry. We learned that neither amok, nor green curry are true curries at all. Though they have similar ingredients, they are both lacking in curry powder, which makes something a real curry. We took all these ingredients and ground them with a mortar and pestle for about 10 minutes until we had a well ground paste. The only difference between the paste for the amok and green curry was just some dried red pepper that we added to the paste.

Here Nary is showing us how to make our green curry.

Finally we finished everything. Green curry in the middle, fried spring rolls on the sides and amok wrapped in green leaves. It was such a huge meal that we didn't eat again until late that night!

Here's our interpreter for the class. He was a great guy who set us up with a motorbike that afternoon to go around in, and got us a tuk-tuk for the next day for a countryside tour. If you're not sure what to do in Battambang, go see this guy. He'll figure out something great for you to do!