Saturday, June 25, 2011

Welcome to Dongmakgol: Korean Movie Review

Another movie I saw last week was called Welcome to Dongmakgol or 웰컴 투 동막골. It is a comedy from 2005 that takes place during the Korean war. Dongmakgol is a village so high and isolated in the mountains that inhabitants rarely come down and the villagers have no idea that the Korean war is going on.

Their first visitor drops from the sky in an odd machine. A man with blond hair and blue eyes who can't speak a word of Korean. His plane inexplicably crashed, or was it caused by some kind of magic that protects the village? The town doctor, the only man who can read or speak any English, helps him and tries to talk to him. "How... are... you?" he asks, reading from an English text book. The American soldier is rather angered by this question as he's covered in bandages and has a number of broken bones. The doctor doesn't understand why he doesn't respond as the text book suggests: "Fine, thanks, and you?"

But, then, as they are attending to the American soldier, two South Korean soldiers wander into the village. They make small talk with the villagers and explain that there is a war going on. "With Japan? With China?" they ask. No... with Korea itself. The villagers are quite confused by this. The South Korean soldiers are busy explaining all the terrible things the North has done when three North Korean soldiers then walk into the village and the soldiers of both sides jump up and brace themselves for a stand off. The villagers look on rather amused, wondering what is so scary about the sticks they carry and the strange potato-shaped metal apparatuses in their hands. They face each other down for a whole day, no one moving, scared the other one would move first. Finally a grenade is accidentally thrown and the village's food store house is blown to bits.

The North Korean soldiers feel responsible (plus, they have no where to go as the allied forces are now regaining the South and they have been separated from the main army) so they offer to stay until they can fill the storehouse again. The South Korean soldiers don't want to look bad next to the North Koreans who have so generously offered to stay, and so they decide to stay, too. After a series of strange events, they start to befriend each other, and the American soldier, too. Something about the town just seems to have that effect on everyone.

I really love this movie. It reminds us that North Koreans and South Koreans are just humans after all. They are enemies because of what their governments have told them. In this little idyllic town of Dongmakgol, those problems between them cease to matter and the soldiers just become human beings again. Again, this, like Wedding Campaign, is an older movie and a bit off the radar now, but certainly worth hunting down and watching.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Wedding Campaign: Korean Movie Review

Since there aren't any Korean movies set to be subtitled this year so far, we've been working on expanding our DVD collection. We usually pick up movies when we see them on sale for 1 for 1,000 won either at Technomart or at the Dongmyo market. Rarely does a movie make such a good impression on me that I feel that I need to write a review, but in the past week I've seen two noteworthy movies the first of which was a movie called Wedding Campaign or 나의 결혼원정기. 

This comedy, which premiered in 2006,  lightheartedly touches upon some really serious issues in Korea today. The story revolves around two men from the country who have been unable to find wives until now they realize that they are in their late 30's and have no one. Parents and grandparents are starting to put on the pressure on them to find someone to help run the house. Some other folks in town have started to bring home wives from a country they can't pronounce, but sounds something like Uzubeku. They can't find it on a map, but they decide that they will go there to find a young, pretty bride to bring home.

Upon arriving in Uzbekistan, they find themselves amidst a corrupt buisness of selling Uzbek brides to South Korean men. It takes them a while to realize it, too, but their translator is a North Korean defector who has adopted a South Korean accent and is trapped in her miserable job until she can afford to buy fake South Korean passports from her boss so she can finally stop running from the law.

This is really a hidden gem of a movie. It touches on all these topics that I find so interesting in a comedic way. I highly recommend watching this movie if you happen to find it next time you're out shopping for DVDs or browsing movies online.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Foreign Missionary's Cemetery, Hapjeong, Seoul

Last Thursday I found myself with some spare time in the Hapjeong area and I walked over to check out the Foreign Missionary's Cemetery which is only a 3 minute walk from the station area.  It was interesting to see all the different kinds of people who have lived, and died, here in Korea.


You can learn about the stories of so many interesting individuals. The grave pictured above is the grave of the second Episcopal bishop of Korea. He was the leader of the YMCA in Korea and he assisted in the resistance against the Japanese during the colonial period.

While many graves here are of missionaries, there are also many other foreigners buried here too.  The photo above shows the graves of some US military personnel and their wives. It makes me wonder who they were and how they wound up being here until the death. Did they want to be buried here? Did their families want them buried here? Did their families from home make it to Korea to attend the funeral? It makes me sad to think of people being buried so far from where they are from. But, then again, maybe they thought of Korea as their home. I can't help ponder these ideas as I walk through this cemetery.

These are the graves of babies. The dates are all a few days or a few weeks between each other.  So sad...

But, cemeteries have a certain beauty about them. Korean tour groups are always walking through with tour guides explaining the history of these forigners who shaped the history of Korea so much. It's a very peaceful place and it really feels like being at home, too.

You can get here by going out exit 7 of Hapjeong Station (line 6/2) and following the signs down into a back alley. Go under the bridge and you'll find the cemetery, worship hall and Jeoldusan Martyr’s Shrine in the area. It's located about 3 minutes from the subway station.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

봉정암 Bongjongam, Korea's Highest Temple

After our 7 hour hike up to Sochong Shelter we were in desperate need of nourishment in the form of warm food (not PB&J) and so we hiked down about a half an hour to 봉정암, Bongjongam, Korea's highest elevation temple. Not only does this temple have that pretty amazing little name to fame, but it is also home to a very sacred relic. A 사리 of the Buddha himself.

It's a beautiful temple and it has some spectacular views compared to your typical temple.

Below is the pagoda which houses the 사리 of Buddha. It seems to be the biggest attraction of the temple and while it's hard to see, people were continually piling more and more bags of rice when they made their way up to the pagoda to pray.

But, the real reason we came here was not the pagoda, even though it was quite cool. We came here to eat. They offer free meals every day, three times a day. All pure vegetarian food as you would expect from a temple. We hadn't really thought about WHAT they would serve and we hadn't really thought about the numbers of people that would be at the temple around dinnertime on a Sunday evening on a long weekend. We decided find the food line at about 5:20, as the dinner was scheduled to be served at 5:30, but we were shocked to see a horrendous line ahead of us. But, we figured we'd come this far, we might as well join the crowd and we stood in line. After we got in line, the line continued to grow until it started snaking into the woods and then curled back around and doubled back on itself and went back almost to the beginning of the line again.

Spoons were passed around as we waited in line long after 5:30 had passed and we started wondering what we were going to get. Then, without warning the line started moving, and it moved unbelievably fast considering how many people were waiting in line. We couldn't imagine what they could be serving that they could hand it out so fast. Finally we realized how it ran so fast. The were only serving up Miyeokguk.

The bowl full of steaming hot seaweed soup and rice was literally tossed into our hands and we were pushed out of the way for the next person to get their food (explains why the line moved so fast). Then we sat down to eat. The Koreans were clearly prepared for such a simple meal because on all sides of me the Ajummas were pulling out lock & locks (Korean tupperware) full of panchan of all kinds. We were forced to suffer with our basic meal. After eating, we washed our dishes, then we filled up our water bottles at the fountain (because every temple has one fountain with drinking water) and stopped by a booth to buy some rice as an offering for our families. A quick prayer in the temple and then we were off back to our shelter for the night.

A foreigner in a sea of Koreans

While there are lots and lots of foreigners on Seoraksan, I didn't see a single one here at Bongjongam. I don't know why it's off the tourist radar, but I hope you make a stop here on your next trip to Seoraksan. It's a beautiful temple with a lot of significance.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Eating in Gwangjang Market

One of my favorite markets in Seoul to visit is Gwangjang Market near Jongno-5-ga. Great shopping (just picked up a hanbok for a wedding coming up soon... can't wait to post photos) and lots and lots of food. If you come during the daytime, there are a lot of options. Lots of normal Korean food like noodles and bibimbap, and lots of all the weird Korean food you've always been curious to try, like pig's noses and live octopus. If you go at night, the scenery changes a little. Many food stalls and shops close down, but certain shops that serve alcohol will stay open until the wee hours of the morning. Korean pancakes of all shapes and sizes can be found here and makkoli must be drunk to to accompany them.

Rows of food stalls open at night

Piles of 전, Korean pancakes piled and ready to eat.

An ajumma, who was the star of the cover of 10 Magazine's February edition.

The 모듬전 that the ajumma served up.

We asked her to pose for a photo and she was really excited to do it. 

This one was all her idea. She was so friendly! 

An afternoon or an evening in Gwangjang Market is a must do in Seoul. You can find this right outside Jongno-5-ga Station on line 1. It is also within walking distance of Dongdaemun and it's not a bad place to grab some food after doing your shopping. It seems to be growing in popularity with foreigners. Japanese tourists love this market, and you can see lots of westerners here snapping photos of the strange food for sale.

One Night, Two Days in Seoraksan National Park

I've been talking about going to Seoraksan for over two years now, but finally over the long weekend this month I finally got to go. We took the bus Saturday afternoon (we were stuck in Seoul on Sat. morning for a wedding) and got to Seokcho, the largest city outside of the park around 6:30. There are many places to start hiking, but we decided to sleep in 설악동 (Seorakdong) so that we could start hiking early in the morning from 소공원.  It took about half an hour to get there from Seokcho on the local bus #7. We stayed at a small minbak (home stay type accommodation)  for 40,000 won for the night and explored the "town" around there.  There was about 6 or 7 restaurants and a few minbak and that was about it. Finally we settled down on some benches had had some 옥수수 막걸리 or corn flavored makkoli. It didn't taste bad and seems to be all the rage lately in Gangwon-do province.

Before retiring for the night we looked at the stove and found that the host of this minbak had fried up some 메뚜기 or crickets as an anju for beer. She encouraged us to try some and while the boyfriend was brave enough, I just photographed the experience. 

We woke up early and started hiking just before 7 am. Right at the start of the trail, we passed through this temple called 신흥사, Sinhungsa, with an enormous Buddha. We didn't spend a lot of time here, though, because we wanted to hit the trail. 

We stopped for some breakfast of 산재비빔밥 or mountain vegetable bibimbap. This kind of bibimbap is always quite popular in mountain areas around Korea. 

The trail provided all sorts of exciting sights. Like these rock climbers scaling up a huge rock face. 

Speaking of rocks, that's probably what makes Soraksan so amazing. It's got such amazing views of rocky peaks and cliffs. I've never seen a mountain like it here in Korea. 

Shelters like this were vital to our survival up here. There was nowhere to fill up on fresh water for free (except for the temple, but that wasn't until later) and so we had to stock up on our water supplies at each place. It is also possible to sleep in these shelters, but most need reservations ahead of time. The one we stayed at is first come first serve, though, but I'll talk about that later. 

천당폭포, Chongdang waterfall

Finally after 7 hours of hiking, mostly up, we arrived at our shelter 소청대피소, Sochong Shelter. We were a little concerned about getting a place to sleep as sleeping arrangements are first come first serve, but we had no problem arriving at 3 o'clock and getting a spot. Some folks arrived around dusk and found they were out of luck. Our back up plan if we couldn't sleep here was to go down to 봉정암, Bongjongam temple because they also offer simple accommodations there.

We walked down to Bongjongam temple for dinner (I'll make a separate post about this later) and came back up in time to catch sunset over the mountains. It's a fantastic place to watch the sunset, and it's less than an hour to the highest peak. Many people get up at 3 am to catch the sunrise up there as well.

Our accommodations were simple to put it lightly. They had about 20 people jammed in this tiny room. It might not be the best place for tall people as our feet were constantly brushing up against the people sleeping across from us and we're abnormally short people. ...But, then again, for only 4,000 won for blanket rental and a place to lay your head down it might be worth the discomfort for only one night...  personally I'd do that rather than lug a heavy tent up the mountain.

Koreans hiking, particularly hiking overnight, are really amazing. Clearly, the term "roughing it", at least when it comes to food, is not something they've ever heard of. At every shelter, Koreans crowd around tables, blankets, benches... basically anywhere with a flat space to sit and cook, pull out their cooking stoves and not just cook something simple like ramen, but pull out three course meals full of samgyupsal, jjigae, and any panchan you can imagine.  I when I look at the packs that they carry up the mountains... even for day trips... I marvel at the size and always wonder what they could possibly need for a few hours or even one night. But then when the bottles upon bottles of makkoli, containers full of panchan and meat of all varieties come out it all makes sense.

Now myself and the boyfriend... are not that Korean evidently. The night before leaving we deliberated for a while what we would bring to eat. We were assuming kimbab would make the most sense, but bringing ice packs along is extra weight that we didn't want and so that wouldn't be a solution for food for day two. Then suddenly a genius idea came to me. The most basic of American food, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was just what we needed. The boyfriend, not ever having heard of this invention, was a little skeptical, but went along with me for once and we got some bread, peanut butter and jam in a squeeze bottle and packed up for our trip. We also brought along a few apples, crackers, cup ramen (bad idea without any hot water on the mountain), and cookies.

But the boyfriend was really impressed by the peanut butter and jelly. Lightweight, no need to keep cold, no mess (as long as your careful) it's really the best thing we could have brought. We laughed at all the ajummas and ajosshis with their huge packs while ours was full of such light things. But, we were also a little jealous as they were eating their dinners of samgyupsal as we ate half a peanut butter sandwich each. 

We hit the trail around 6 am the next morning, we were one of the last ones out of the shelter. Many took off at 3 in the morning. I'm not sure how you can see at that time, but maybe they have lanterns with them. We got to the highest peak, 대정봉 (daechongbong), before 8 am. We were rewarded with beautiful sights. And as we found out later, people find it very impressive if you tell them that you climbed up to 대정봉 people will think that you're really amazing and you'll get a lot of "ooh!"s and "Ahh!"s from your Korean friends. Most people aren't so hardcore and just do easy 4 hour hikes.

It took us another 5 hours to hike down. On a path that should have taken 3-4 going down. I've been having some knee issues lately and while going up was no problem, going down was sheer agony. Not sure what my problem is. But, whatever. We finally made it down and rewarded ourselves with a big order of 산재정식 and they brought out bowls and gochujang so we could make our own 비빔밥. It felt amazingly good to eat hot food and something other than bread and crackers. 

Our recommended trail: From 설악동, we went up to 천불동계곡. From there we went up to 소청봉. We stayed at 소청대피소 which is 20 down the trail from 소청봉. In the morning we hiked back up to 소청봉 and continued up all the way to 대청봉, the highest peak on the mountain. From there we took the trail that leads down to 오색. While you do need a little endurance, I wouldn't say this trail is too hard. It took us about 7 hours to hike up on day one, then another hour hiking up in the morning and 5 more to hike down (going very slowly). That was with lots of breaks too. Folks more in shape than us could do it faster. When one ajosshi asked us where we had started from around noon time he kind of laughed and said... "Well, you must have taken a lot of breaks, huh?" which made me feel a little embarrassed... This is certainly not the only course you can take, but it was nice and there weren't many people on the trail at all. Nothing like the horror stories I've heard in peak season when the mountain is attacked by leaf peepers. I think June was a really perfect time to go. Weather was really nice, not too hot, not cold, not crowded etc.

Getting to Seoraksan: Take a bus from any of the bus terminals from Seoul (Dongseoul is the fastest) to Seokcho. From there take a local bus to your starting point of departure. You can take bus #7 or 7-1 from across the street from the Seokcho Bus Terminal to Sorakdong. Other starting points would require you to take different buses. Taxis are also readily available and often line up at ending points to bring tired hikers back to the city. From 소공원, So park near Sorakdong there is a cable car for the folks less inclined to hiking, too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Italian Cooking Class at the Seorae Global Village Center

A few weeks ago I went to the Seorae Global Village Center for an "Italian Cooking Experience". The menu called for a salad and a lasagna and I purposely didn't eat breakfast or lunch before going so I could fill my belly with Italian goodness. After getting to the class I realized about 5 minutes in that there was going to be no salad and that the lasagna needed to be cooked in a home oven (good thing I have that little toaster oven now or I'd have been in trouble) and the next two hours were quite painful watching all this food being cooked on an empty stomach.

Anyway, the class was good enough I guess despite some challenges we faced. Mainly in a lack of cooking supplies. Two cutting boards and 4 knives to share between 7 people. Only three working gas ranges.  Not to mention that I was the only native English speaker in the whole group, including the teacher. Cooking has a lot of specialized vocabulary much of which even our teacher was unaware of so understanding directions and following them was a bit challenging for everyone. It was also a little awkward because all the women in my class were from around Asia most of them had never even seen a lasagna before. Things that seemed like common sense had to be explained in detail to them because they just had no concept of how the end result was supposed to look or taste like.

But the one thing I did learn here is that it's possible to make a lasagna without ricotta cheese, which is something of a commodity here (I've never seen it). We instead made a meat and tomato sauce and layered it with a bechamel sauce, something I'd never seen done back at home (heck, I didn't even know what bechamel sauce is... am I uncultured?)

The bechamel sauce is made by boiling milk, butter and flour together. It doesn't sound very delicious, but when layered with a nice tomato meat sauce it was really lovely. The other women were worried that the flour would be bad for their health. Personally, I was more concerned about the copious amounts of butter and milk than the little bit of flour. Although, frankly, I wasn't thinking about my waistline much at all while making this.

Then we made enough lasagnas to feed a (small) army, or a large group of hungry Italians with all the sauce we had cooked up. A production line was set up and layer upon layer was added. Unfortunately our little lasagna tins were not quite large enough to fit all the 5 layers that the teacher had prescribed. This didn't stop our teacher and the other students from trying to fit 5 layers. It took some convincing that I didn't want all the sauce to seep out on my hour subway ride home. That all the tape in the world would not keep that sauce from leaking out of one tin upside down taped to the top of the tin containing the lasagna. Heck, even with only 3 layers I still got some sauce leaked on me on my ride home.

But all the frustration was worth it when I finally got to eat my lasagna at home for the next two nights. I got to take two home, which I think was well worth the 15,000 won that I paid for the class. I recommend folks to get signed up on the global center's mailing list to keep up with all the Seoul Global Center's events and classes. They have a lot going on and there's a lot of exciting events for foreigners and Koreans alike to try.

Friday, June 10, 2011

미타사, Mita Temple

Lately I've been taking line 3 a lot and while passing from Oksu station to Geumho station I caught sight of the roofs of what looked to be a temple and I decided that one day I had to find that temple for myself. On my bike ride that brought me to the Dalmaji Park, I found myself right next to this temple and decided to check it out. 

It's truely an urban temple. Only half the buildings inside look like they belong in a temple. It was quite empty too the day I went on a Thursday around noontime. 

But while this temple didn't have the same austerity of some of Korea's more famous temples, I was really intrigued by the artwork and colors that were there.  Unfortunately my camera was in desperate need of a cleaning at the time that I went here and my photos didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. Fortunately my camera has been all cleaned out and I'm happy once again with my camera.

This isn't a temple which I would say you need to go out of your way to see, but if you happen to be around Oksu station, it might be worth a 5 minute look around.