Sunday, August 30, 2015

Seoraksan & Gyeongju, South Korea

Seoraksan National Park: Aug 4-6

Seoraksan is a beautiful national park that is about a 3 hour bus ride to the east of Seoul (see below for Marc's info on the bus ride). It is the most famous/popular national park in the country and we thought it would be a great opportunity to see the more natural side of Korea. 

We ended up staying near Sokcho, a small city that is right outside of the park. The accommodations were pretty kitschy and basic, but mostly we needed A/C and the internet. Ah, many a night with convenience store ramen in this hotel room.
Stylish green slippers.

The little town that we were staying in appeared to be dying economically because for every open hotel we saw, there were 3 overgrown, derelict, mostly deserted, and creepy hotels. 
Way too happy to be standing in front of an abandoned hotel, haha.

The park was beautiful, with many stone bridges crossing the rivers, and well designated paths and trails. There were mostly middle aged Korean couples or families with small children, all tricked out with the latest brightly colored hiking clothes and walking sticks. 
So picturesque!

The first day we decided to do an "advanced" climb to the top of Ulsanbawi Rock, which is 3.8 km / 2.4 miles, 876 m / 2800 feet up, and took about 2-3 hours one way. By the end it was just a long staircase anchored to the cliff. Oof!

At the top, there is one guy with a little shelter set up where he is selling Korean ice tea for 5000 KRW per cup. Which means that he schleps all his materials (and ice) up to the top of that mountain by foot every single day, since there isn’t any other way up!

That same day we decided to take on another hike to the Biryong Falls hike to see the waterfalls (3 km / 1.9 miles) with a small waterfall of 16 m / 52 feet.
Not the most powerful of waterfalls, but pretty nevertheless.

The next day we were pretty worn out from the previous hikes, so we took the leisurely Bisoeondae section hike which has more gentle slopes (3km/1.9miles). Both hiking days were very hot (95⁰F / 35⁰C) with high humidity, so while we were melting, we were surprised to see so many people carrying large backpacks full of camping gear.

We took the cable car up to the top of one of the Gwongeumseong Fortress Peak and hiked to the tippity top of a very precarious viewpoint. Again, I was surprised that so many people (particularly older people and young kids) were basically free fall rock climbing some of these small cliffs to get to the top. 

Gyeongju: Aug 7-9

Next, we took a bus back to Seoul and then a high-speed train to Gyeongju, which is a southeastern coastal city that was once the ancient capital of Silla. We stay in a guesthouse that is run by a lady that is a total mom. She is super helpful, and wanted to walk us to a nearby Vietnamese/Korean restaurant. She actually ends up walking in, sitting down, and choosing food for us! I guess she really wanted to make sure we ate, haha. The food appears to be hot pot, so we put all the veggies into the pot. The waitress comes by, horrified. It's a Vietnamese hot pot where you are supposed to boil the meat, but keep the veggies fresh to put in a spring roll. Doh!
Cooking fail.

To start off our first full day in Gyeongju, we head to a local market which almost looks like a basement alleyway with tons of middle aged Korean women selling food from small kitchens that line both sides of the walkway. It looks a bit dodgy, but the food was delicious and cheap. We ended up going back more than a few times.
These are definitely some hard working ladies.

We take the bus to Bulguksa Temple which is a bit outside of the downtown. It was blisteringly hot that day, so we envied the people at a water park that we passed (I regret that we didn't go!).

Although we are a bit "templed out" after seeing so many in Seoul, we decide to head to the Seokguram Grotto, which houses a stone Buddha from the 700s (sorry, no pics allowed inside)!
Colorful lanterns outside the temple.

Next, we head to the downtown area of Gyeongju where there are beautiful flower fields and ancient ruins. 
Field of lotus.
Field of "rape" flowers. Oh what a name.
The two in the forefront are ancient burial mounds. Don't be fooled by the picture, they can be several stories high.
Cheomseongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia.

Our last day in Gyeongju, we decide to visit a traditional Korean folk village that was founded in the 1400s called Yangong.

Later that evening, we take the guesthouse bikes for a spin downtown to visit the Donggung Palace and the serene Woliji Pond.

Seoul: Aug 10-11

Rounding out our time in Korea, we take the high speed train back from Gyeongju to Seoul. We stayed in a traditional Korean hanok where you sleep on comfy mats on the floor.
Our traditional hanok home stay.
We set out to see the Yeouido-Dong area, which is the south side of the Namhan river that runs through the middle of Seoul. There was a nice waterfront area where many young people were hanging out and having picnics.
Is it "Blue steel" or "Sparrow face"?
There was also a water park area where kids were playing and splashing in the fountain. One awesome moment was when we saw a small kid run over and pick up a random, almost empty juice box on the ground and started to drink it. His father immediately rushed over and snatched it out of his hand, with a big exasperated/amused "are you serious, kid?!" sigh. Haha, love it.

The next day, we went to the Alive! Museum in Insadong, a cool museum where you can become part of the paintings with optical illusions. 

We finished our time in Seoul by going to the Honkik University area where all the young kids hang out. It has a cool walking street with tons of clothing and knick nack shops, as well as bars and night clubs. 

Next up, Beijing!

Monday, August 24, 2015


July 30: Thursday

Yay for Seoul! We stayed in a cute Airbnb studio near Insadong (which is on the northern side of the city). 

We start out by walking to the Changdeokgung royal palace and take the Huwon Secret Garden Tour, which is a tour of the more forested and peaceful palace grounds with pavilions ad lotus ponds. One great thing we learned is that the kings of the dynasties that created these spaces were quite philosophical and humble in their approaches to how the buildings were structured (e.g. shaping a pavilion like a boat over a pond to blend in with the natural surroundings), and often emphasized using doorways as a picture frame to look at beautiful scenery and work on scholarly works. Marc made an interesting observation that this was the complete opposite of what we saw in Versailles, which was based on extravagance and manicured landscapes.

Beautiful gateways.
The building is a library, the large gate was only for the emperor to enter.
The pagoda was supposed to be shaped like a boat to appear to be floating on the water.

We went to Myeongdong, a super trendy shopping street.
Crazy, crowded, and a shopper's dream.

First things first, we go to a cat cafe! I'm allergic to cats, but I just can't resist the opportunity. Most of the cats are very sleepy and you can just pet them as they sleep.
This one was a favorite.
So many lazy cats!
No sooner had we left the cat cafe, when we realize there is a dog cafe! Being a dog lover, of course we have to go. The dog cafe is not quite as nice as the cat cafe, but it's an opportunity to pet some cuties. Sadly, mostly they were waiting around for the cafe workers to give them treats, and they wouldn't let us play with the puppy since he was too wild.
His face seems to say "I'm not so sure about this guy."
Don't be fooled, the photographer bribed that dog with a treat.

July 31: Friday

Another day of many temples and palaces :) First stop, Changgyeonggung Palace.
Guards in full costume!

We also took photos at the tourist center dressed in traditional clothing. I still am not sure if Marc's outfit is appropriate or not...
I dunno if he's allowed to wear that...

Stopped by the National Folk Museum of Korea (mostly to escape the heat, let's be honest). 

Then it was off to Deoksugung Palace.  We were lucky to be there during the changing of the guards. Which was a long, and quite elaborate process which involved a crew of at least 30 marching through the palace grounds playing music, passing various boxes and keys between elaborately dressed soldiers, beating a large drum, and even doing a sword fighting demonstration.

We then stopped by City Hall to see one of the largest indoor green walls (a wall of all plants). However, there was some sort of labor demonstration outside, so we booked it in the other direction afterwards. 

August 1: Saturday

Probably Marc's favorite day in Seoul, we took a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the border between North and South Korea. 

The first stop on the tour is the Third Tunnel of Aggression. This is the third tunnel that South Korea found in 1978 where North Korea was trying to tunnel under the DMZ to South Korea. The tunnel is 1.1 miles long and about 230 feet below ground level. Even though it's only about 2 people wide, and not even 6 feet high in some places, they estimated that about 30,000 lightly armed men would be able to pass through the tunnel in about an hour! Another crazy fact is that when South Korea confronted North Korea about the tunnel, they claimed they were looking for coal and subsequently painted the walls with coal powder to corroborate their story. They don't let you take pictures inside, sorry folks.

Next we went to the Dolsom train station, which is the last train stop in South Korea. We were told that many South Koreans actually work in North Korea, where production is relatively cheap. For example, if you have a Samsung phone, chances are that it was made in North Korea.

After a security briefing with the US soldiers that work at the DMZ, we head over to the Joint Security Area. This is the only place where North and South Korea face off daily. There are a few small houses that straddle the actual border, where they hold official talks between the two sides. They let us go in and for a few minutes, we were standing in North Korea. 
Temporarily in North Korea.
Serious business.
Outside, the Republic of Korea (ROK) guards stand at attention all day facing the North Korean soldiers. These ROK guys were serious business, and we were warned not to get too close! There was only on North Korean guard on duty that day, so he was clearly out numbered.

Finally, we went to a lookout point where we saw the city of Kijong-dong, which is a propaganda village that is largely uninhabited, but meant to look like a prospering North Korean village. This picture is terrible, but it shows a North Korean flag and flagpole. The story goes that when South Korea built a flagpole, North Korea immediately responded by building an even taller flagpole with a larger flag. No joke, hilarious.

August 2: Monday

We take a trip to one of the largest open air markets, Namdaemun. There are a ton of vendors selling everything from clothing to selfie sticks to bed sheets.

Then we took the Namsan cable car up to the N Seoul Tower. Similar to Paris, they have locks with people's names written on them, and even lock "trees."
Practicing my Korean girl selfie poses.

We saw two cool cultural performances in the N Seoul Tower plaza with musicians who wore swirly ribbon hats and another where fighters chopped up some bamboo.
Marc and the N Seoul Tower.

That night, we saw Nanta! the cooking show which featured a little bit of everything: drumming with knives, some dancing, singing, plate tossing, slight of hand, comedy, etc. It was impressive that they did all the show with real knives, though the ticket price was a bit expensive. 

August 3: Tuesday

We decide to do our own things for the day :) I decide to go shopping (of course). I started at "Ladies Street" near Ewah Women’s University. Strangely, the 90's are currently completely en vogue in Korea. We’re talking spaghetti strapped dresses with white shirts underneath, scrunchies, flannel, jean skirts, platform sandals, overalls, etc. And all size SX, sigh. Still determined to shop, I head out to the shopping area in Myeongdong and find a few cute purchases.  

Marc walked around, but he said he didn't find anything interesting except these mildly interesting bunnies that were lounging in an open cage in a random park.
These rabbits are bored.
Later in the evening end up in Insadong to meet up with Marc for dinner. Insadong is actually our right in our neighborhood and is known for its crafts, antiques, and tea houses. There are tons of traditional Korean restaurants crowded along narrow alleyways. We ended up eating somewhere in Insadong almost every night!

Next stop, Seoreksan National Forrest!