Quin's Progress


3 Comments

Sunrise, Sunset

CheruquinIt’s holiday time, and once again, people everywhere are talking about miracles. So, gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of a truly rare wonder. An occurrence of such extraordinary unlikeliness and infrequency that seeing a giant octopus piloting Halley’s Comet like a chariot across the Golden Gate Bridge would seem banal by comparison.

It's a sleep mask.  Don't be afraid.

My favorite sleep mask.

I’m talking about me getting out of bed before dawn to see the sunrise. Not to compare this to the big, faith-based marvels that inspire our various winter festivities, but anyone who knows me, has worked with me, or tried to get me on the phone, much less up and dressed, before double-digit hours in the morning, will confirm that, for me to voluntarily haul my carcass upright and into motion while it’s still dark out, when the building isn’t even on fire…well, it’s gonna take nothing short of a forklift miracle.

But, such miracles do occur now and then. Usually as a result of peer pressure. And, to be honest, I always feel like I’ve been tricked; defrauded out of my early morning snuggle time by the promise of beholding tangerine magic that never quite delivers. But, I keep falling for it.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

DSC00369

The terrace behind the Taj Mahal.

It all started years ago in India, when my friends Rajendra and Bhawani told me it would be simply inexcusable to miss seeing the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I was pretty sure the Taj Mahal would look amazing at any time of day, so I politely declined. They were so persistent, though, that I started to worry that I might actually miss something astonishing if I didn’t make the effort. Accordingly, I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours, grumbled resentfully through the dark streets of Agra, and followed Rajendra and Bhawani to the foggy marble terrace behind the Taj Mahal, where Rajendra said the view of the sun bursting over the horizon would be most awe inspiring. And we waited.

DSC00372There’s a river winding through the sands behind the Taj Mahal, and as dawn approached, daylight started to illuminate the land, and nearby villagers came out to the bank of the river…and squatted down. From above on the terrace, I had to squint to get a good look at them. It was getting lighter and lighter out, but we still hadn’t seen the sun come up. But, the lighter it got, the more villagers came to the river and copped a squat, and the clearer it became what they were doing.

DSC00398

Oh, hayell no.

I turned to Rajendra and said, “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?”  My friend Jennifer tried to lighten the mood, knowing well how much of a morning person I’m not. “No, I think they are taking pictures of the Taj Mahal! They are getting down low to frame the shot!” Bless her. She’s such an optimist.  I looked at Rajendra, the arch of my eyebrows demanding an answer. “Please tell me you didn’t drag me out of bed in the middle of the night just to come watch people poop on the river bank!” Rajendra laughed nervously, and said the people were, indeed, relieving themselves. I turned away in exasperation, and in the opposite direction, saw…the sun! It had come up on the other side!

DSC00383

On the other side.

“LOOK!” I shrieked and pointed, and Jennifer and Rajendra and Bhawani and I ran around to the front of the main tomb building, just in time to see the fat, amber yolk of the sun climb into the Indian sky over the tip of the red marble monuments on the, yes, east side of the complex.

DSC00400

Looks exactly the same at 3 p.m.

“Why were we back there watching people go to the bathroom in the river when the sunrise is over here!” I whined. Rajendra looked positively nonplussed. “I don’t understand, it usually comes up over there, I don’t know what happened this time,” he said. Well, that could happen to anybody. You know how unpredictable the sun can be.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand.  And no one had to get up early to see it.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand. And no one had to get up at an unchristian hour to see it.

After that, I swore I wasn’t getting up to see any more damned sunrises. Sunsets are just as good—no, better, because no one has to get up earlier than they want to, and they virtually demand to be accompanied by a relaxing cocktail. That’s definitely more my speed.

Fast forward to last year. I was on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea. For some reason that made perfect sense to me at the time, I booked a hotel on the east coast, on the opposite side of the island from the main town. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel also happened to be next to a large, volcanic tuff cone named Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak.” You can see where this is headed.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

It was off-season, and when I arrived, it looked like I might be the only guest in the place. So, when the English-speaking gentleman the owner had dispatched to meet me upon check-in (that’s Korean hospitality for you) told me that they had set up a special sunrise viewing terrace just for me on the side of the building facing Seongsan Ilchulbong, and would be waiting for me at 5:15 a.m. with coffee and pastries and blankets for snuggling…well…it would have been rude to say no.

So, up I got. At least, this time, I didn’t have to go very far, and I didn’t have to watch anyone at their morning toilet. And there was coffee and pastry. That made it much more bearable. But, the sunrise still failed to deliver the advertised spiritual epiphany-inducing chills. In fact, as if sensing my bad attitude, it failed to show at all.

This is what it looked like just before dawn:

Before dawn.

Before dawn.

And this is what it looked like just after:

Just after dawn.

Just after dawn.

Pfft.  I shoulda stood in bed.  I renewed my vow that the only sunrise I would ever see would be one on the end of a long and festive night of carousing, not one I had to crawl out of bed for.

Anton.  Just look at that smile!

Anton.  And bakso.  Both wonderful!

Then came Anton. Anton is a professional driver (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004371273617&sk=about), and when he doesn’t have a client booked, he kills time doing airport runs from the Yogyakarta airport in Java. That’s how we met. We hit it off like a house fire, so I hired him to drive me around and show me the sights.

It's a tofu brand.

It’s a tofu brand.  No comment.

Lucky for me, he also knows all the good local places to eat, and introduced me to a bunch of Indonesian dishes I might never have discovered otherwise, like “bakso,” a wonderful meatball soup with noodles.  And a popular local tofu brand, called “Poo.”  No river bank required.

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

One of the most notable sights near Jogja is a massive, 9th century Buddhist temple called Borobudur. When I told Anton I wanted to go see it, he said we needed to set out at 4 a.m. to get there by sunrise. Oh no, I told him, nothing doing. I don’t care about the sunrise. We can just go around noon. He said okay, but knitted his eyebrows and looked down into his bakso. After a couple bites, he said, “Quin, if you want to go later, we can, but it will be very hot and very crowded. I don’t think you will like it.”

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

If there’s anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s oppressive heat and crushing crowds. He had my attention. I proposed we go at, like, 8 a.m., and avoid the heat.  Now, we were negotiating. He argued that we would still have to set out at 6:30 to get there by 8, and it would still be hot, and with all that discomfort, we wouldn’t even be rewarded with the sight of the sunrise. So, why not go a couple hours earlier, see the magical sunrise over the temple, with the Merapi volcano in the distance, and then get in and out of the temple before the bus tour groups show up and the heat gets too bad. He knew a secret, special place up on a hill over the temple where we could watch the sunrise, and it wouldn’t be crowded, and we wouldn’t have to pay the entrance fee the hotel near the temple charges to let people watch the sunset on their terrace. I reluctantly agreed.

That’s right.  Anton talked me not only into getting up, but into climbing a mountain before dawn!   He really is a wizard.  And this was my reward (if the video below does not show, click here):

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha's head.

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha’s head.

I have to admit, it was pretty cool. And we got in to Borobudur in time to see the giant bumblebees perching on the Buddha’s head–Buddhabees–before the stone got too hot in the sun for them to land. Point: Anton.

A week later, I asked Anton if he would take me to Mount Bromo, the big, active volcano in east Java.  It was a couple days’ drive away, but he was willing.  On the second day, Anton started preparing me for the idea that I would have to get up and trek up the mountain before dawn.

Buddhabee.

Buddhabee.

“Why,” I asked. “It’s a volcano, it’s open all day. We can go in the afternoon.

No, we can only drive up so far in my car, and then you have to take a jeep, and the jeep drivers only work in the morning.”

I bet we can find one who would be willing to go later,” I said confidently.

High tech security system on the wall at the lodge.

Cool high tech security system on the wall at the lodge at Mt. Bromo.

When we got up to the lodge at the edge of the ash plane surrounding the cone, Anton checked with his contact, who confirmed that it had to be a pre-dawn run. I was so annoyed. Anton assured me that, once again, the heat would be so ghastly in the afternoon, that the trade off of getting up early would be worth it.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Now, Mount Bromo is up at almost 8,000 feet, and it was really cold that night. It was the only time I broke out my packable down jacket in the entire year I have been on the road, so I was especially skeptical about this heat avoidance claim. But, there was nothing to be done. Anton–who ordinarily stays in bed while his clients meet the jeep driver for the trek up the mountain—after advocating so hard to make me go early, had to get up and go with me.  We froze our assets off in the dark in the back of the jeep, as it lumbered off-road across the moonscape to the side of the volcano, and began to climb. About two-thirds of the way up, the path was so jammed with jeeps and motorbikes, that we had to stop and hike the rest of the way on foot. This did not improve my mood.

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun. From the opposite direction. Again.

Anton walked along a few paces ahead of me through the crowd, cheerfully offering falsehoods of encouragement, like “just a few more meters and we are there, Quin!” when we were clearly nowhere close.  Finally, at the top, there was a big, curved amphitheater carved into the hillside, from which you can look down onto the active, smoking cones of the volcano. And that is a truly remarkable view.  But, once again, the sun came up on the opposite side! Tricked again.  You would have to climb over the back side of the viewing platform and look out across the plains in the other direction to see the stupid sunrise. So, all that effort, and the sun came up in the wrong place.

P1110962Within a half hour after the sunrise, 99% of the people and the jeeps they came in were all gone. So, if we had waited, we could have driven right up to the top and hopped out of the jeep right at the amphitheater steps. P1110971And it wasn’t that hot. And I refuse to believe there isn’t a jeep driver willing to make a few extra bucks after the sunrise run is over. But, it sure was a marvelous, otherworldly sight. I’m just fairly sure it would be equally marvelous at noon. Or, even 9 a.m. Whatever. I’m not bitter.

P1080167In the meantime, I am back to my commitment to a “sunset only” policy for 2015. Sunsets are just more glamorous. And I’m more likely to be glamorous at the hour that they occur. I think we can all agree that’s an important factor.IMGP1939  So, for me to get up voluntarily just for another sunrise, well…it would take a miracle.


Leave a comment

Those Are Not Apricots

Jeonju

Jeonju

I just read something that one of my friends back home posted on Facebook, and it reminded me of something I meant to tell you.  About a month ago, I was in the town of Jeonju, South Korea.  Jeonju is famous as the place bibimbap supposedly orginated.  It’s a fair size town, with a very big old quarter filled with “Hanok”–the traditional, old style Korean courtyard homes with the elevated, heated floors that you sleep on.  They call them “ondol” rooms.  Some of these old hanoks operate as bed and breakfasts.

Jeonju Bibimbap

Jeonju Bibimbap

People go there to stay in these old timey hanoks and browse through the very quaint old town.  Kind of like Korea’s version of Colonial Williamsburg, or Solvang.  You see a lot of out-of-towners there on weekend getaways; mostly Korean folks.  I didn’t see another westerner the whole time I was there, and there wasn’t a lot of English spoken or on signs.

Jeonju

Jeonju

Anyhoo, I wanted to have the experience of staying in a hanok, and sleep on the floor and the whole shebang, so I was researching online to find a good one.  I often check out TripAdvisor when I’m looking for recommendations for places to stay; I find, if you read about five or six reviews, you usually get a pretty good sense of whether a place is going to work for you.

Bibimbap House.  Note the pottery vats in the garden; those are for "jang"--fermented foods, like gochujang and soy sauce.

Bibimbap House. Note the pottery vats in the garden; those are for “jang”–fermented foods, like gochujang and soy sauce.

So, I perused the reviews of various hanok in Jeonju, and I noticed that many of them referred to all the lovely apricot trees in town.  Several different people gushed about it; some even referring to a specific hanok in which they had stayed having a “big apricot tree” right there in the courtyard.  I thought “okay, have to make a note to see what kind of apricot stuff they have there that I can try,” assuming the locals would have all manner of jams and pastries and candies, etc., if they had so many apricots around.

Persimmon Tree

Persimmon Tree

When I got there, I kept my eyes peeled for these supposedly ubiquitous apricot trees, but there aren’t any.  There are, however, scads of persimmon trees.  Everywhere, branches loaded and heavy with the voluptuous, orange fruit.  In October, persimmons were starting to drop on the ground and sidewalks all over, like sweet, pulpy, orange bombs.

Another Persimmon Tree

Another Persimmon Tree

There’s nothing mutually exclusive about persimmons and apricots–we had both types of trees in our field when I was a kid–so it didn’t hit me until I had explored the whole area for a couple of days without seeing a single apricot tree, that I realized those TripAdvisor reviewers didn’t know a persimmon when they saw one!  Oh, no no no no no….those are not apricots.  Not even close.  The only similarity is that they both grow on trees, and they’re both some shade of orange, although not the same shade, at all.

Persimmons are very popular in Korea.  They eat them fresh, like any fruit.  I’m not crazy about the texture, but there’s no denying the sweet flavor.  It’s like candy.  Also, when the fruit is at its peak of ripeness, they freeze them, and then cut up the frozen persimmon flesh into cubes, and eat it like ice cream.  You don’t have to add a thing (although, I personally feel that most things benefit from a dab of cream, and I bet this would, too).  The freezing does away with the weird texture, and makes for a unique, delicious and healthy dessert!


4 Comments

Some Stuff–Korea Edition

krlargeWrapping up almost two months in the “Land of the Morning Calm,” I thought I would start a tradition of saying goodbye to the lands I visit on my wanderings by jotting down some stuff that I saw/did/ate/learned during my time there that I will always remember.  So, in this, my 50th post on this site, I bid adieu to South Korea with the inaugural edition of “Some Stuff.”

Some Interesting Beauty Stuff

oliveThere have to be more beauty product stores in Korea than there are people.  Olive Young, Nature Republic, Skin Food, Etude House…I could go on for pages, there are so many.  They are often right next to each other, too, sandwiched between the endless sock and cell phone cover vendors.  I love potions and lotions and beauty gadgets almost as much as corndogs, and finding exotic ones always makes me smile, so I spent more than my fair share of time perusing these shops’ wares.  Let me just say, they put some fun stuff on their faces in Korea.

I saw a lot of these eyelid tapes and glues in various shops.  I was wondering whose eyelids were flapping around in the wind so badly that they would need to be glued or taped down.  But, it’s actually used to create an extra fold in the eyelid when the eye is open, to change the shape of the eye.  This made me a little sad.

Next time I go to Korea, I’m taking a suitcase full of Herbal Essences and Burt’s Bees products to sell on the street to finance my trip.  A regular sized bottle of that bargain basement shampoo that costs just a few bucks in the States will run you 13,900 Won, or about $14 USD, in Korea; a tiny tin of Burt’s Bees lip balm or cuticle cream is even worse:  about 20,000 Won, or roughly $20 USD.  I wonder if they know Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox?

flush buttonThis doesn’t really fit into the “beauty products” category, but it is under the umbrella of feminine modesty and demureness, so I’ll just stick it here.  In some public restrooms, they have these little boxes on the wall with a speaker and a recording of a toilet flushing, that you can play while you tinkle so you can delude yourself that no one can hear what you’re doing.  Staves off the bashful bladder syndrome, I guess.  Saves water, too, by keeping women from constantly flushing the toilet while they’re trying to go.  This is not just in fancy public powder rooms, either.  I took this photo in the KTX train station in Seoul.  They also have panic buttons in there that you can press to summon help if you’re in trouble, like, if you’ve run in there to hide from someone trying to attack you.  Pretty nifty.

Some Stuff I Ate and Will Now Forever Crave

Galbi grill and a kajillion banchan.

Galbi grill and a kajillion banchan.

Oh, gentle friends, I could devote several pages to waxing poetic about Korea’s food.  I now have a number of new temptations to resist.  The barbecue, obviously, is out of this world.  Whether galbi (short rib), or samgyeopsal (pork belly), or what-have-you, the tabletop grill and scores of “banchan” (side dishes) make for a blow-your-mind meal.

Pork of "8 Kind Tastes"

Pork of “8 Kind Tastes”

I was just lucky to have friends to go with, as the tables are those giant, communal deals, and you never see anyone sitting there solo.

Tteokbokki

Tteokbokki

My friend Jung Eun told me on my first day in Seoul that, unless you have eaten Tteokbokki (also known as topokki), you can’t say you’ve been to Korea.  So, she took me to her favorite shop and we ate a pile of it.  I was skeptical at first.  The dish is described as “rice cakes and fish cakes in spicy sauce,” and that just didn’t ring any bells for me.  But, I’m a good sport, so I tucked in…and I loved it.  It’s sort of like chewy pasta in red enchilada sauce.  You see it a lot at street stands.  It’s cheap, delicious snack food.

Half jjajangmyun, half spicy seafood soup

Half jjajangmyun, half spicy seafood soup

There was a Korean soap opera I watched that was basically a Korean re-write of the movie “Overboard” with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.  But, since it was 16 one-hour episodes, obviously they had to expand the story.  Anyway, one of the little bits of the Korean version of the story that was cute was how the rich, amnesiac lady–who had been such a snob before hitting her head and forgetting who she was–wouldn’t eat anything except this cheap noodle dish called “jjajangmyun,” or noodles with “brown sauce.”  Well, apparently, jjajangmyun is to Koreans what mac n’ cheese is to Americans.  And it rocks, hard.  Comfort food in the extreme.  Salty, slightly sweet, savory…so perfect on a rainy afternoon.  It is also one of the few things I could order coherently when I was alone in a restaurant, so I ate a lot of it.  mcdonaldsAt Jung Eun’s house, we had it delivered in these little divided bowls–half jjajangmyun and half spicy seafood soup, the perfect combination–and after we were done, the delivery guy came back and took the dirty dishes away!  I love that.  (You can get anything delivered in Korea; even KFC and McDonald’s deliver.  Not that it did me any good; I couldn’t order anything over the phone because I don’t speak Korean.)

I don't know what these little pancakey things are called, so I'll just call them Heaven Puffs.

I don’t know what these little pancakey things are called, so I’ll just call them Heaven Puffs.

In every market, some vendor will have a stand selling these nutty little pancake thingies, serving them folded in half in a paper cup.  Just to look at them, they reminded me a bit of the round puffs in face powder compacts.  They’re about the size of the palm of your hand (well, my hand), they have a chewy texture, and are filled with brown sugar, sesame powder, peanuts, and any number of yummy spices that melt into the dough as it fries on the grill.  Er-mah-gerd, people, these things are addictive.

Patbingsu

Patbingsu at Eskimo Hawaii

And then there’s Bingsu.  If “shaved ice with toppings” gives you visions of snow cones drizzled with syrups of colors that do not occur in nature, think again.  Bingsu is a whole different ball of wax…or, rather, bowl of ice.  Lots of places serve green tea flavored bingsu in a big, quart-sized Pyrex mixing cup, loaded with fresh fruits, mochi nuggets, and of course, the ever-present red beans (which makes it “Patbingsu”).  eskimoThat’s good, and much lighter than ice cream.  But the bingsu that will now forever come to my mind when I get an ice cream headache is from a place called Eskimo Hawaii.  Their “shaved ice” is made of milk that’s been hyper-frozen until it’s bone dry, and put through a shredder that makes it like sawdust.  So strange.  Then they top it with candied pumpkin, sweet rice cakes, and yes, red beans.  The milk flakes melt on your tongue and mix with the sweet toppings…it’s like milk and cookies all in one bite.

Some Stuff on a Stick

I love food on a stick.  Put anything on a stick, and it’s just better.  I think they should figure out a way to put spaghetti on a stick, I really do.  Korea agrees with me.  In every market and street food stall, there is no lack of stuff on a stick.

Meh.

Meh.

With all the pseudo-corndog teasing that I was subjected to, however, there was one cruel joke.  Long before coming to Korea, I had read about a mythical french fry-encrusted hot dog on a stick that was to be had in street food stalls Seoul.  Finding this unicorndog was on the top of my list of things to do while in Korea, understandably.  Accordingly, one day, I put on my walking shoes and set off to the big market in Namdaemun, vowing not to rest until I found it.  And find it I did.  And you know…it was just okay.  It needed salt, and it wasn’t as crispy as it either looks or should be.  Not at all worth a special trip.  Phooey.

Some Stuff I Ate and Was Surprised I Liked

fish intestinesWhen in Rome, as they say, do as the Romans do.  So, when in Korea, eat as the Koreans eat.  Some of that stuff can be pretty intimidating, though.  But, you know, if you just open your mind, and dispense with the preconceived notions, you just might slip one past your Western palate, and discover that you like fish eyeballs.  Yes, I ate fish eyeballs, and did not die.  They’re kind of like little savory raisins.  I won’t be getting into any slap fights to get my share of fish eyeballs anytime soon, but I can honestly say I didn’t hate it.  Also surprisingly good, the aforementioned sausages encased in fish paste on a stick.  It won’t be replacing the corndog in my heart, but they weren’t bad.  Fish intestine soup was pretty strange looking, but went down easy.

Those are not chicken breast tenders, they are fish egg sacks.

Those are not chicken breast tenders, they are fish egg sacks.

But the biggest surprise was pollack roe on rice for breakfast.  Had anyone told me a few months ago that I’d be happily nibbling on fish eggs and seaweed soup for breakfast, I’d have had them drug tested.  But, it’s true.  They marinate the egg sacks, and the roe takes on a smoky, very non-fishy flavor that, on rice, is about as close as Koreans get to lox and bagels.  I know you don’t believe me, but it’s the truth.

Some Stuff I Refused To Eat

Penis fish in the Busan fish market.

Penis fish in the Busan fish market.

I am a pretty good sport when it comes to most things, especially food, but even I have to put my foot down sometimes.  One of the things I just couldn’t bring myself to put in my mouth, was the penis fish.

Penis fish on a plate.

Penis fish on a plate.

Some try to make it better by calling it by its alternative name, the spoon worm.  Not helping.  In Busan, this creature is served live, sliced and still squirming.  Sorry…couldn’t do it.

silk worms

Boiled silk worm pupae (beondegi).

When I was in Mexico City earlier this year, I ate crickets (chapulines) and ant larvae (escamoles), and I won’t say I liked them, but I got them down without having to leave the table or spit them out in a napkin.  They eat roasted crickets in Korea, too, but I felt like I’d done my cricket duty in Mexico, so I politely declined.

Looks like I'm not the only one who had that reaction.

Looks like I’m not the only one who had that reaction.

But, when confronted with the Korean beondegi–boiled silk worm pupae–I almost threw up a little in my mouth.  This dish is common, too; you see it all over at street stalls.  The sight of it is bad enough, but the smell…oh god, the smell.  Imagine you’ve gone off and forgotten a load of laundry in the washer for a week during the hottest week of summer.  So very gross.

Umm...no thanks.

Umm…no thanks.

I know tomatoes are technically fruits, but before visiting Korea, I hadn’t seen them actually prepared like fruits.  Except, once, the Korean deli near my office in Oakland put cherry tomatoes in their fruit salad.  But, now I understand why.  Koreans treat tomatoes like the fruit that they are, making sorbet and sugary desserts and smoothies out of  them.  It just didn’t do it for me, though.

chickenbutt

I don’t see any bandages over his gizzard….

Finally, there was dakdongjib.  Literally translated as “chicken shit house” in Korean, dakdongjib is part of the alimentary canal of a chicken, close to the exit.  There is some dispute about whether what is served is actually the anal sphincter, or rather, the gizzard.  I don’t know the answer to that, but the restaurant in Busan that serves it has this illustration as its logo, so you do the math.

Some Stuff I’m Glad I Got Off My Ass To Do

Woljeongsa Temple in Gangwon.

Woljeongsa Temple in Gangwon.

Anyone who has traveled in Asia knows what it is to get temple fatigue.  After a while, one temple starts to look like every other temple, and they all require you to hike up bloody steep hills to get to them, and then prohibit you from taking any pictures.  By the time I was in Busan, toward the end of my time in Korea, I not only had a bad case of temple fatigue, but my Achilles tendons were inflamed, and I was in no mood to hike up any more mountains to then climb up another dizzying staircase just to see another statue of the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion who, I’m sorry, if she was really the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, she’d have met me at the bottom of the damned hill.

Yonggungsa

Haedong Yonggungsa

So, it is all the more remarkable that I was even open to taking the bus 40 minutes north of Busan to see Haedong Yonggungsa.  But, I’m so glad I did.  For one, it’s the only temple in Korea that isn’t on top of a mountain; it’s perched on a bluff above the ocean.  The story goes that some ancient Buddhist monk had a dream about a sea god, in which he was instructed to build this temple by the sea.

108 steps.

108 steps.

But, that didn’t spare me climbing stairs, oh no.  There are 108 steps from the gate down to the bridge across the rocks to the temple.  The number 108 is a sacred figure in several eastern religions, including Buddhism, which holds that there are 108 human feelings, and 108 “agonies,” the latter of which inspired these steps, I can testify.

yonggungsa2But the effort was worth it; Yonggungsa is an ethereal place that invokes anything but a somber mood in its visitors.  It’s joyful and bright and leaves you feeling clean and light, even if you are not a particularly spiritual person.

Traffic Safety Pagoda

Traffic Safety Pagoda

There’s even a special pagoda for “Prayers for Traffic Safety,” marked with a truck tire.  Very practical, I think.  And since I was planning to rent a car the following week in Jeju Island, I threw a few Won into the box, lit a stick of incense, and said a silent prayer, just in case.  There are other well-worn prayer spots, too, such as a granite Buddha statue whose belly you can rub to ensure that your baby will be a boy–that one was rubbed smooth and shiny–as well as heavily attended shrine where folks can pray for “Excellence in Academics.”  But, not by me, I’m done with all that, thank goodness.

Some Stuff I Was Too Lazy To Get Off My Ass To Do

"Come have a slumber party with me!"

“Come have a slumber party with me!”

Read any information on how to make your trip to Korea authentic and wonderful, and you’ll run across information on doing a “temple stay.”  I read this stuff, too, and thought seriously about checking it out.  Temple stay is where you check in to a Buddhist temple for a few days or weeks, live with the monks, meditate, eat with them, etc.  It sounded like the type of experience that might be interesting, if not fun.  monk signSo, I investigated it at a number of temples, such as Woljeongsa in Gangwon.  It’s affordable, and I know I could do the required work, and the meditation. I could even deal with the all-plant diet and the doing your own dishes and the scratchy clothes.  But, then I found out you have to get up at 3:30 a.m. every day, and I said “Oh, I’m out.”  If anyone hears of a swing-shift temple stay program, let me know.

Some Stuff I Bought

I just wish they had printed it the other way around, so it would look like he is looking up at me when I have the socks on.

I just wish they had printed it the other way around, so it would look like he is looking up at me when I have the socks on.

I don’t do a lot of shopping when I travel, especially on this trip, where I would have to lug anything I got around indefinitely, unless I shipped it home.  But, I have picked up a couple of fun things.  My favorite Korean soap opera heart throb is Song Seung-Heon.  He’s stars in at least seven of the K-Dramas that I’ve seen–some of which I watched simply because he’s featured–and I think he’s just so pretty.  So, when I saw these goofy socks with his face on them, that say “I Love You,” well, I just had to have them.  Turns out, they’ve been useful, as I packed too few socks, thinking I would be wearing sandals more than I have been.

I love you even if you are doing weird.

I miss you even if you are doing weird.  I really do.

The other useful thing I bought is this cute utensil set with a spoon and pair of chopsticks in a pink carrying case.  I got it so I could eat yogurt or noodles or such in my hotel room, so I wouldn’t have to go out to eat all the time.  The case says “Lovely Friend” above the little bear with his cap on backwards, and below, it says:

“Naughty Bear

I’m really missing you, even if you are doing weird.  You understand me and take care of me.  So I thank you.  I wonder what you are doing now.  I think you every moments.  Perhaps, I like you.  I am your valuable friend.”

Even if I hadn’t have been in need of a portable utensil set, I think I would have to have bought it just for that inscription.

Some Stuff I Learned

My Kimchi Baby

My Kimchi Baby

One thing I was determined to learn when I went to Korea was how to make kimchi.  And I did.  I learned to make a number of classic Korean dishes, in fact.  I took some one-on-one cooking classes at Food & Culture Korea, with the beautiful and talented Jae Jeong.  I told her I wanted to learn techniques more than recipes, so I could really understand how the food is prepared.  If you know the technique, you can cook without a recipe.

All prepared with my own two little hands.

All prepared with my own two little hands.

She gave me exactly what I asked for, and now, I am equipped to cook you all an authentic Korean meal when I get home.  My dumplings may be ugly little piglets, as I lack Jae’s dumpling folding skill, but they will taste good.  I didn’t get to try the kimchi we made, though, because it had to ferment for a few weeks before it was ready.  But, my little ball of kimchi fermented away in my friend Jung Eun’s kimchi fridge, and when it was done fizzing itself to readiness, she informed me that it was, in fact, edible.  I am so proud.

The Billboard

The Billboard

Before I left San Francisco, I was driving back into the City over the Bay Bridge one day, and I noticed a big billboard right off the 80, just past the Fremont Street exit, seemingly advertising a vacation destination called “Dokdo Island.”  It had a beautiful picture of a rocky, exotic seaside and a lovely Korean woman, and a caption that read “Visit Beautiful Island! Dokdo, Korea!”  I had never heard of it, but knew I was headed to Korea, so I filed it away in my mental notebook of things to look into when I got there.  Well, I didn’t get to visit Dokdo, it was too out of the way, but I did learn something about it.  dokdoDokdo is the center of a brewing new dispute between Korea and Japan.  Dokdo is out in the East Sea between Korea and Japan, and apparently, despite centuries of settlement by Korean people, Japan has recently taken the position that Dokdo belongs to Japan.  This has Korean wigs in a major twist.  They are, after all, a tad sensitive when it comes to having their land claimed by Japan.  to NYTSo, there is a rather urgent PR campaign going on to make sure the world knows very well that Dokdo belongs to Korea, not Japan, and that the sea in which it lies is not the “Sea of Japan” but the “East Sea.”  That’s what that billboard was all about–planting in the minds of anyone who drove past the name of the island, and it’s association with Korea…just in case.

There is more…so much more.  My memory is full of vivid colors, wonderful people, funny signs, idyllic towns and oh so many teeny tiny towels.  Maybe next time, I’ll get to the bottom of why all the towels are so very, very tiny.  Or, I’ll just bring my own towel.  Either way, I am pretty sure I will be coming back.


3 Comments

Sex, Mermaids & Tangerines

Jeju1Jeju Island.  Semi-tropical, volcanic island off the southern coast of South Korea.  Favorite honeymoon and golf getaway venue for the better-heeled Korean, Chinese and Japanese set.  Also, the setting for the most infuriating Korean soap opera finale of all frickin’ time.  If you’re a K-drama fan, you know I’m talking about the last scene of the first season of IRIS.  Okay, hang on, let me catch the others up….

IRIS

IRIS

All you need to know, is that the couple in the following clip both just retired from active spy duty with a South Korean government intelligence agency so they could finally live a quiet life together.  For 20 episodes, they were star-crossed, kept apart by the lies and malevolent agendas of various Svengalis, as well as their own conflicting loyalties.  Every time they were about to get together, something would tear them apart.  They even each thought the other was dead for a while.  So, they’ve been through quite the wringer.  In Episode 20, the final chapter, the Baddie gets his comeuppance, the two lovers quit the spy biz for good, and run off to Jeju Island for some long overdue R&R&R (rest & relaxation & romance).  He casually proposes and asks her if they can have five kids; she jokes that she can’t take such a random proposal, with no ring, seriously.  So, later, he leaves her a note to meet him at the lighthouse, and he goes and gets a ring.  She knows what’s coming, so she happily goes and waits for him, wistfully reflecting on all they’ve been through.  Then, this:

What.  The.  Hell!  They killed him in the final scene?  After 20 episodes of spectacular betrayals, intrigues, and narrow evasions of death at every turn?  When, finally, all obstacles to their love had been cleared from their path?  With her, standing on the lighthouse platform, waiting for him to come propose to her properly, right there in his sight as he bleeds out?  Aww, man…Korean soap operas have a tendency to have less than the full Hollywood happy endings, but this was just uncalled for.  I was so mad, I watched Spanish telenovelas instead of K-dramas for two months afterward out of spite, as payback for that beaver tail slap to the face.

The infamous lighthouse

The infamous lighthouse

But, I got over it.  There are, after all, a host of other K-dramas with happier scenes filmed on Jeju Island—or Jeju-do, as it’s called in Korean.  In fact, the tourist maps have all the film locations noted on them, so fans can easily find them.  Naturally, I made a beeline to the infamous IRIS lighthouse.  I even parked my rental car in the spot where they filmed his car screeching to a halt after he’d been shot.  It gave me closure.  I can move on now.  I might even watch the second season.  Maybe.

Jeju MapBut, back to Jeju.  The southern tip of South Korea shatters into a spray of little islands, and Jeju is the largest, and one of the most distant, of them.  Still, it’s a snap to get to, with ferry service from Busan, as well as practically hourly flights from Busan, Seoul and other major Korean and Japanese cities.  I took the 45-minute flight from Busan, and the ticket only cost me about $40 USD on Jeju Air.

Jeju Dolharubang

Jeju Dolharubang

Jeju has a personality all its own, very distinct from the mainland.  The local saying goes that Jeju-do is a land of “Three Abundances: rocks, wind and women”–because of the rocky lava landscape and the Dolharubang (ancient stone statues sprinkled around the island), the windy climate and the fact that Jeju women are more plentiful and dominant in its society than men–and “Three Lacks: thieves, locked gates and beggars”—as the community values are such that there is no theft or begging, and thus, no need to lock the front gates.  I can vouch for the Three Lacks, but from what I saw, I think they need to revise the Three Abundances to read “women, tangerines and sex museums.”

embraceThe place is lousy with “museums” of all kinds, actually, due to an apparent special tax benefit for museum owners.  But, on an island of roughly 700 square miles, there are three fairly large scale museums devoted to sex.  In the town of Seogwipo (pronounced “soggy-po”), there is the somewhat clinical, yet still X-rated, Museum of Sex and Health, as well as the World Eros Museum, devoted to erotica.  But, the biggest, and best known, is Jeju Loveland in Jeju City.

leg archLoveland is an adults-only sculpture park, started in 2004 by art students from Hongik University in Seoul.  The 140 sculptures in the park are all sexually inspired; some are more graphic than others, and some are even interactive.  boobie mountainsWith a few exceptions, the tone is humorous and playful, and encourages visitors to lighten the heck up about sex.  From the gaggles of giggling grannies I saw gleefully frolicking amongst the interactive exhibits, I’d say that message was received, in spades.

She's dropping a red chili pepper into a giant clam.  Subtle, no?

She’s dropping a red chili pepper into a giant clam. Subtle, no?

fanny fountain

There’s a snack bar at the far end of the trail through the park.  It’s adjacent to a giant, mosaic-tiled posterior—complete with butterfly tattoo–peeing into a pond, next to which a comely maiden rides astride a rearing, phallic steed.  Because, you know…that kind of sight can make a person a bit peckish.  As I approached, an apron-clad auntie came out of the snack bar and insisted I try a sample of some fragrant, fresh baked goods she had in a basket.

Bag o' Dicks

Bag o’ Dicks

They were little cream-filled waffles shaped like boobies and wee-wees.  Of course.  What else?  Although, I personally felt the joke would have been carried home a little better by some kind of Bavarian cream filling, these were filled, like almost all pastries in Korea, with sweet red bean paste.  Anyway, I always feel obligated to buy after I accept a sample, and they weren’t bad, so I went inside to buy one.  But, they only came in bags of three.  So, I bought and, yes, ate…a bag of dicks.  And, I thought about Louis C.K. the whole time.

I may have to tweet him about this.

jeju1More ubiquitous than, and some would argue equally salubrious as, the sex museums, though, are tangerine orchards.  For centuries, Jeju has been famous for–indeed, practically synonymous with–tangerines.  The island is, literally, covered with tangerine trees.  jeju3The climate and volcanic soil on the eastern side of the island, near Seogwipo, are perfect for citrus cultivation.  In the IRIS video above, notice that, when the girl is sitting by the window reading, she’s got a big basket of tangerines next to her, and there’s a giant pile of peels on the floor.  Oh yeah, you don’t go to Jeju and not gorge yourself on tangerines.  It just isn’t done.

Historical records indicate tangerines were offered as tribute to the king as early as 476 A.D., in the Baekje Dynasty.  They were prized not only for their sweet taste, but also for their value in oriental medicine.

Smell-evision at the Jeju Citrus Museum.  Push the button, and the fragrance of different citrus blossoms wafts out.

Smell-evision at the Jeju Citrus Museum. Push the button, and the fragrance of different citrus blossoms wafts out.

Once the royals got a taste of Jeju’s tangerines, they couldn’t get enough, and demanded a huge tribute of tangerines each year, to the point that the local governors requisitioned the fruit on all the trees on the island, including those in people’s back yard gardens.  Here’s a groovy 3D video they had at the Tangerine Museum (yes, they had a tangerine museum, complete with “Smell-evision”) of a dramatic reenactment of the ancient King first learning about the wondrous tangerine:

Got that?  Good.  So, civil servants would run around the island during the bloom, and count the buds on the trees, and then show up to collect exactly that number of fruit at harvest time.  If your tangerines failed to develop, fell, or got eaten by bugs or birds before they could be collected, you had to pay a fine for the missing ones.  If your tangerines were of inferior quality, you could be charged with mismanagement of tangerines, stripped of your property, and converted to a person of the slave class.  Harsh, no?  So, during that time, people who didn’t want to take the risk, would pour boiling water on tangerine saplings, to kill the tree before they could be held responsible for it.  But, on the flip side, if a slave managed to plant some tangerine trees and yield some good fruit, he could be elevated out of slave class to a citizen.  Later, when the tangerine industry started to be a profit center for Jeju residents, they called tangerine trees “college trees,” because if you planted enough, you’d be able to afford to send your kids to college.

Tangerine Tree Root Chandelier, as tangerine trees are the root of Jeju's economy

Tangerine Tree Root Chandelier, symbolizing tangerine trees as the root of Jeju’s economy

There are several varieties of tangerines grown on Jeju, and citrus stands dot the roads all around the island.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some.  Tangerines have been my favorite fruit since I was little, when we had tangerine and tangelo trees in our groves in Southern California.  I have many fond memories of sitting under the trees in the sunshine, sweet tangerine juice running down my chin, my hands and arms all sticky, as the honey bees buzzed whimsically around.

fruit standSo, first thing, even before I went to Loveland, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy some tangerines.  The farmer sent his helper running up to the house to fetch his daughter from her homework to come help, as she could speak a few words of English.  I’ll spare you the play by play, but suffice it to say we had a minor disagreement about which, and how many, tangerines I would be taking home with me.  tangerinesI wanted the plumper, dark orange ones with thick, dimpled skin, and he seemed to want to unload these sad little greenish, golf ball-sized, shiny, thin-skinned ones that didn’t look appetizing to me.  And, he insisted I had to take at least a kilo, which is a lot of tangerines.  Finally, by the time his poor daughter had smoke coming out her ears from trying to translate the exchange, I agreed to take a kilo, and he agreed to split it half-and-half between the two varieties.

The sour ones

The sour ones

And darn it, he was right.  The ugly little green splotchy ones were sweet, juicy, brilliant ruby and delicious inside, whereas the big fat orange ones that had attracted me were sour and dry, like the Naranja Agria you get in the Latin markets back home for cooking rather than eating.

The good ones

The good ones

Shows you what I know.  I had to go back later and apologize to the farmer, and get some more of those yummy little ones, after I hoovered through what he had given me in one day.  To his credit, he didn’t gloat.  To my face, anyway.

One of Korea’s uniquely charming traits is how it can embrace modern progress, charging headlong into the high tech future, while at the same time, its historical and folk culture remains intact.  This is evident nowhere plainer than on Jeju-do.

Seongup

Seongup

jeju1I’m not talking about self-consciously quaint reproductions of old-timey traditional burgs filled with souvenir shops, although there are some of those.  No, Jeju’s got the real thing.  There are entire villages of inhabited thatch-roofed, mud and stone hut compounds surrounded by low walls of stacked lava rocks to keep the pigs and chickens from taking off.  Seongup is one such village.

Air-conditioned mud hut

Air-conditioned mud hut

People still live and work in these anachronistic communities, and not just to provide atmosphere for the tourists.  It has been their way of life for generations.  They do add modern conveniences here and there, though.

Because livestock is kept inside the walls of the homesteads, they put stone pillar gates–called “jeongnang”–at the entrance, and block the gate with one to three wooden poles to keep the animals in when they aren’t around to mind them.

Jeongnang

Jeongnang

They also use the jeongnang poles as a message system to communicate with the neighbors, as well as any camera-wielding tourists who may wander in.  If all three poles are up in the gate, it means “Don’t come in.”  Two poles up means the owner is out for a while, but will be back in a bit.  One pole up means the owner is not in the house, but is somewhere close by.  All three poles down means the owner is home, and visitors are welcome.  Remember, no locked gates on Jeju-do.

haenyeo4The most defining cultural feature of Jeju-do, though, is the Haenyeo.  The “sea women.”  Specifically, women free divers.  If you drive along the coast, chances are you will catch a glimpse of a group of black rubber-suited figures popping their heads up from the surface of the dark, clear sea, whistling like trains in the distance as they exhale their long-held breath.  These are the haenyeo.  Jeju’s mermaids.  They work in tight sisterhoods, diving for as long as two minutes at a time without the assistance of air tanks, to hand-gather abalone, oysters, mussels, octopi, urchins, and any other edible, useful or saleable sea creature or plant they can find.  They even dive when they’re pregnant, and well into old age.  Some of these broads are in their 70s, and they’re still hauling their entire extended family’s livelihood out of the sea with their bare hands, every day.

These haenyeo statues are dotted all along the coast.

These haenyeo statues are dotted all along the coast.

haenyeo1As early as the 17th century, women were the breadwinners in Jeju, diving for marine products from the sea in the morning, and tending family farms in the afternoon.  This came about in part, because so many of the island’s men blew away when out to sea to fish (remember, wind is one of the Three Abundances), but also for a much more practical reason.  Under the early laws, women weren’t taxed.  So, Jeju’s women took to the seas, and the yield from their day’s work was more profitable, because they weren’t taxed.  Soon, they figured out that women were more suited to diving; they didn’t get cold so fast, because of higher body fat.  As a result, gender roles on Jeju reversed, with women assuming the place as heads of the household.

A Haenyeo Village

A Haenyeo Village

They created a sure-fire matriarchal society on Jeju-do.  Confucian traditionalists on the mainland didn’t like that; women were supposed to be inferior and submissive.  So, they tried to ban women from diving.  But, the Jeju haenyeo ignored them, and went about their business.  So central were the haenyeo to the economic health of the island, there is a saying on Jeju when someone has a baby:  “if it’s a girl, we’ll roast a pig and have a party; if it’s a boy, we’ll kick him in the hip.”  Not that the haenyeo didn’t have any use for men in their circles.  You know…as pets, to keep warm at night.

Look how tired she looks.

Look how tired she looks.

The haenyeo were also critical to the anti-Japanese resistance in Korea.  They continually staged protests and fought against the Japanese occupation in Jeju in the 19th century.  In the 1930s, Japan had turned Jeju-do into a military base.  The haenyeo organized two years of full-scale rebellion against Japanese oppression of Jeju’s fishing and marine industries, rallying thousands of villagers to stand up for their rights.  It is considered one of the three most significant anti-Japanese movements in Korea’s history, and the only one lead by women.

Casting of a hanyeo's face

Casting of a hanyeo’s face

At the height of Jeju’s marine product export economy in the 1950s, there were as many as 30,000 haenyeo on Jeju.  They made good money, and sent their daughters to college instead of having them follow in their flippers to a life in the sea.  As a result, by 1970, the number of working haenyeo was down to 16,000.  Today, there are fewer than 6,000 haenyeo still plying the waters around Jeju-do.  Two-thirds of them are over 60 years old, and over a thousand of them are over 70.  But, they remain the pride of Jeju.  So concerned is the community that the haenyeo are dying out, they have established a school, where anyone who wants to learn the haenyeo trade is welcome to enroll.

If it wasn’t for Dale, and my extra-buoyant figure, I’d give it a whirl.  But, I’d probably end up like this crusty old bat (note the tangerines):


2 Comments

Anyone For Some Cuttlefish Jerky?

When you are enjoying a nice, frosty brew with your friends after a long day, or while watching the game, don’t you just want to gnaw on some desiccated mollusk flesh dipped in mayonnaise?  You do if you’re in Korea!

squids

Freshly Caught

In the States, the only consumers of cuttlefish may be parakeets (you know, the cuttlebone you’re supposed to put in their cages for them to nibble and rub their beaks on), but all over East Asia, cuttlefish is a very popular snack food for humans.

Cuttlefish, drying on the line

Cuttlefish, drying on the line

Despite the name, cuttlefish are actually mollusks, in the same class of marine Cephalopoda as squid and octopi.

The most popular way to eat it in Korea is dried, like jerky, often together with peanuts.  It’s especially popular as an accompaniment to drinking beer or soju.

At the movies

At the movies (with peanuts)

cuttle with peanuts

Snack pack with peanuts

You see it everywhere:  at street vendors’ carts, in convenience stores next to the chips, even at the concession stand at the movies.

The seasides are dotted with drying racks draped with the corpses of cuttlefish, and the markets are cluttered with stalls of vendors selling stacks of the flat, pressed product.

Vendor drying cuttlefish on the roof of his shop

Vendor drying cuttlefish on the roof of his shop

Cuttlefish in the market

Cuttlefish in the market

The way you eat it–at least, the way I was shown–is, if you can, you toast the dried cuttlefish over a flame and char it a little bit.  Not very much, just enough to singe it slightly and give it a smoky note.  (If you don’t have access to a flame to toast it, just skip this step.)

Flame-toasted cuttlefish with mayo and chili sauce

Flame-toasted cuttlefish with mayo and chili sauce

Then, you tear off thin shreds of the meat, like little ribbons, and dip it in mayonnaise first, then a chili sauce, and pop it in your mouth!  Mmmmm-mmm!

Tentacle Jerky

Fish and Tentacle Jerky Selection

Cuttlefish isn’t the only marine animal that people like to eat dried in this fashion.  For example, dried octopus tentacles are also to be had in the markets, as are all manner of dried, pressed fish.  But, cuttlefish is, by far, the most popular to munch on while you’re getting your buzz on with some good beer or soju.

Those of us with Western palates will probably jump to a conclusion about why it’s popular to eat while drinking; our tastebuds can have beer-goggles, too, after all!  But, I was sober as a judge when I had it, and I enjoyed it.  I thought it was savory and delicious, if a bit…cuttlefishy.  But, then again, dip anything in enough mayonnaise and chili sauce and I’ll eat it and think it’s good.


2 Comments

Jewelry Shopping On The 38th Parallel

Who Split Korea In Two?

Well, basically, we did. With the Soviet Union’s help. Let me back up…

Poor Korea has been repeatedly invaded by various neighboring countries as far back as chronicles exist. Japan and Russia had themselves a little war over control of the Korean Peninsula in 1904-1905, which Japan won. Japan then annexed Korea in 1910. Japan occupied Korea for several decades after that – a time that leaves Koreans bitter to this day.

The Allied powers dismantled the Japanese empire after World War II. At the Cairo Conference in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek agreed that, when the war was over, Japan should lose any territory that it had conquered by force, including Korea. In 1945, Japan surrendered, and the United States and the Soviet Union took control of Korea as “trustees,” with their respective zones of control separated at the 38th Parallel.

The original intention of the trusteeship was to establish a provisional government that would eventually become independent through free general elections supervised by the United Nations. Instead, the Soviet Union established a Communist state in the north, later ceding control to China, and the USA installed an anti-Communist leader in the South. In 1948, the two separate Korean Republics were formed, and the 38th Parallel became the de facto border.

Two years later, North Korea invaded South Korea, took Seoul in just three days, and then very quickly claimed most of the rest of the peninsula. The USA responded immediately; President Truman sent General MacArthur to move the line of control back up as far north of Seoul as he could—all the way to China, if possible. The United Nations marshaled the troops of 16 nations, with the USA in charge, to fight the “police action” that lasted until 1953. When the war finally ended, the division line was right back where it started, at the 38th Parallel.

On July 19, 1953, in the abandoned village of Panmunjeom (now the location of the Joint Security Area), the Armistice Agreement was signed. The agreement declared only a “ceasefire,” and established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – a 2.5-mile wide buffer zone, roughly along the 38th Parallel, at the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) where the two sides actually confronted each other at the time the Armistice Agreement was signed. Thus, North and South Korea are still, technically, at war.

I’ve never been a fan of group tours, mostly because I’m a slowpoke, and I don’t like the rushed pace of most tour itineraries, but also, because there is always at least one person the group that I end up so wanting to throat-punch with a roll of quarters in my fist, that it distracts me from what I’m there to see.  But, I wanted to visit to the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) between North and South Korea, and the only way to do it was to join an escorted tour group.  So, I sucked it up, mentally set Saint-Saëns’ soothing cello masterpiece “Le Cygne” on a loop in my head, and got on the bus.

The thin black line is the border--the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)--and the red zone on each side is the Demilitarized Zone. (Image from wikipedia.org)

The thin black line is the border–the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)–and the red zone on each side is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). (Image from wikipedia.org)

Why is an escorted tour required?  Well, if you don’t want to go to the Joint Security Area (“JSA”) right on the border, I suppose it isn’t.  But, that’s the most interesting part, in my view, and you can only go in there from the South Korean side from Camp Bonifas, in a United Nations’ vehicle, escorted at all times by a soldier—usually American—under the UN command that oversees the area.  You have to arrange clearance for your visit from the UN in advance—most foreigners have to apply at least 48 hours beforehand, but South Korean citizens must request permission up to 90 days in advance—and the tour companies handle all that red tape.  Access to the JSA from the southern side is, apparently, prohibited for citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Libya.  Read into that what you will.

So, since I had to join a group tour to see the JSA, I just picked a tour with an itinerary that covered all the DMZ’s greatest hits, including some stops at places accessible by the general public.  I’m so glad I did.  It was a truly fascinating day.  The tours are grouped, as much as possible, by the language of the group, for the practical reason of reducing the number of translators needed.  Except for me and a couple of Dutch guys, my group was all Japanese and Chinese tourists.

Mongolian soldiers touring the DMZ

Mongolian soldiers touring the DMZ

The Korean guide spoke passable English, and because I hadn’t noticed that the tour forms had the name boxes in the Korean style, with the surname placed first, she addressed me as “Marshall-ah” instead of Quin.  (Koreans have a tendency to add an extra vowel syllable at the end of English words that end with certain consonant sounds.  Think “chees-ah-cake-ah.”)  All day long, if I strayed from the group, or dawdled somewhere when the bus was loading up to leave, she would holler “Marshall-aaaaAAAAAHHH!” at me, until I came trotting back to the pack.  By the end of the day, it had begun to have the same effect on me as when my mother would call me by both my first and middle names as a kid.  Uh-oh, snap to, I’m in trouble!  Very effective.  (Strangely, she was not the one I wanted to throat-punch by the end of the tour; that honor went to a Chinese woman who seemed to be narrating the entire trip to someone back home on her cell phone.  She only put the damned thing away when a soldier at Camp Bonifas threatened to confiscate it.)

JSA

(I’m going to tell you about this part first, even though it was last on our itinerary, because I know some of you with shorter attention spans won’t read the whole post, and this was the best part.  You’re welcome.)

guest passThe JSA is a roughly 2600 square foot neutral area bisected by the Military Demarcation Line (“MDL”), aka the border between North and South Korea, at the former village of Panmunjeom.  It’s more complicated than I can explain here, but basically, the JSA area is overseen by two commissions established by the 1953 Armistice Agreement: the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, now comprised of representatives of Switzerland and Sweden, and the Military Armistice Commission (“MAC”), which officially supervises performance of the Armistice Agreement.  Security on the southern side is supplied by US and South Korean soldiers under UN command.  From the South, the JSA is reached through Camp Bonifas, a UN command base.

Sgt. Martinez

Sgt. Martinez

The wide highway up to Camp Bonifas is dotted with military checkpoints, and covered with barricades that require vehicles to do a slow, elaborate slalom into the DMZ.  The bus had to stop multiple times, so a soldier could come through and individually check all our passports, to make sure no one from a prohibited nation was entering the zone (see above).  Photography is prohibited along the road.  At Camp Bonifas, we had to leave all our belongings, except cameras, watch an orientation film, and sign a declaration that we understood the requirements and dangers of entering the JSA, including that it was possible that we could be shot, and assumed all the risks of entering.  That was comforting.  Then we got on a blue UN bus, had our passports and clothing (there’s a dress code) checked one last time, and were escorted into Panmunjeom by Sgt. Martinez of the U.S. Army.

On the way, we were admonished not to point, wave, or otherwise gesticulate, and to keep a straight face while anywhere near the JSA, because the North Koreans would be watching and photographing us the whole time, and would make propaganda materials out of any gesture or expression that could be portrayed as disrespectful or antagonistic, especially if you look American.  Even the guides were prohibited from pointing, so all explanations used the “clock system” of locating things, i.e., saying something is located at two o’clock or eleven o’clock, etc.  The UN bus stopped in front of a the “Freedom House,” a big modern hall with a grand staircase that you ascend to access the main attraction.  On the other side of the doors at the top of the staircase is the JSA.  For some reason, although we couldn’t photograph anything anywhere else, we were free to take pictures to our hearts content inside the JSA.

jsa

That big, gray concrete building in the center is in North Korea.
The soldiers with their backs to the camera are in South Korea.

There are four small buildings built directly on top of the MDL.  The border runs right down the middle of these structures, and they have doors to either side, so no one has to cross over the MDL to gain access.  There is a concrete slab over the MDL between the buildings, so the soldiers know exactly where the line is.

The grey building is the "Monkey House"

The grey building in the foreground is the “Monkey House”

The only one of the little buildings right on the line that is not painted UN blue is supposedly a recreation hall for North Korean soldiers.  Apparently, they only go inside to make goofy faces and threatening gestures at UN command duty officers having meetings in the building next door.  As a result, the soldiers on the southern side have nicknamed the building the “Monkey House.”

In the space at the center of the four buildings, soldiers from the respective Koreas stare each other down.  South Korean—or, ROK (Republic of Korea)—soldiers can only serve in the JSA if they are at least 170 cm tall and have at least one black belt in Taekwondo or Judo.  They stand in a modified Taekwondo stance called “ROK Ready,” in black sunglasses, so as to avoid making eye contact, and to be as intimidating to the North Korean soldiers on the other side of those concrete slabs as possible.

Only Half Exposed

Only Half Exposed

While on watch, they stand with their noses at the corner of the buildings, half obscured, so as to give the North Korean soldiers facing them a smaller target to hit if they decide to start shooting.  This way, they can also signal to other southern-positioned soldiers with the obscured hand, if necessary.

Inside the MAC Conference Room. The table in the foreground is ON the MDL.  That door in the back exits to North Korea...if you can get past that guy guarding it.

Inside the MAC Conference Room. The table in the foreground is ON the MDL. That door in the back exits to North Korea…if you can get past that guy guarding it.

One of the three blue buildings is the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Conference Room, where meetings between diplomats from North and South Korea take place.  There is a long conference table in the center of the room, right over the MDL, so that the North Koreans can sit in North Korea, and South Koreans can sit in South Korea during the meetings.  We got to go inside this building.

ROK Ready!

ROK Ready!

When visitors entering from the south are inside, the room is guarded by South Korean soldiers in ROK Ready stance—one blocking the exit to the North Korean side, and one straddling the MDL.  They stand silently, still as statues, and Sgt. Martinez advised us that we could photograph them, but if we tried to touch them, or to go near the door to the North, we should expect to be put down with swift and powerful force.

This ROK soldier is straddling the MDL.   That's Sgt. Martinez on the left.

I was standing in North Korea when I took this picture of the ROK soldier straddling the MDL running down the middle of the room.

I didn’t doubt him for a second.  (Although, I couldn’t help but think that, especially with hot pants, those uniforms would make very popular costumes in the Castro at Halloween.)  The most exciting part was, I took these photos from the North Korean side of the room.  That’s right.  I was about 12 feet inside of North Korea for approximately 15 minutes.  That’s enough for a Century Club point!

After the excitement of our brief visit to North Korea, we were herded back onto the blue bus, and returned to Camp Bonifas to collect our belongings.  Before we got back on the tour bus to leave, we were given access to this weird silo-like building to use the facilities and peruse the gift shop.

The Gift Shop

The Gift Shop

Yes, the gift shop.  There is a gift shop in the DMZ!  You know, even after I found out about the gift shop at San Quentin Penitentiary, this one still surprised me.  A gift shop at the mother-effin’ DMZ.  Of course, I had to have a look.  There were military-themed t-shirts and caps and stuff, UN Command armbands, some typical Korean tourist tchotchkes, an impressive inventory of Red Ginseng products, and…an amethyst jewelry counter.  A big one.  How random is that?  Amethyst rings, earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, brooches…you name it, they had it, and lots of it.  They had big natural amethysts on display stands, too.  Amethysts-R-Us, it was.  You know…because when you want amethyst jewelry, you think “North Korean border.”  I know I do.  Well, I will from now on, anyway.

Incidentally, in 2000, the genius South Korean film director, Park Chan-wook (of the Vengeance Trilogy fame) made a gripping, touching film called “JSA: Joint Security Area,” about an investigation by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission of a fatal shooting incident inside the JSA.  I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything about it, except that you will be glad you spent 90 minutes of your life on it.  The twists!  The turns!  The humanity!  It is, at once, terrifying, sweet, chilling and funny.  It’s not on Netflix (yet), but someone has uploaded a fine quality bootleg on YouTube, with English subtitles:

Watch it sometime.  You won’t be sorry.

Paju

Paju is an area just south of the DMZ.  You can visit most of the locations of interest in and around Paju on your own.

This was printed on the hard hats they make you wear when you go down the tunnel.

This was printed on the hard hats they make you wear when you go down the tunnel.

Our first stop in Paju was the “Third Tunnel of Aggression.”  Since the establishment of the DMZ, South Korea has discovered four tunnels, dug under the border by North Korea to infiltrate the south.  It is believed that there are as many as 20 tunnels, but only four have been found.  The “Third Tunnel” was found in 1978 when a North Korean defector told South Korean officials about it.  He could only identify the general location of the tunnel by its proximity to a big Poplar tree on the south side of the border.  So, they went and bored a bunch of holes in the ground all over the place by the tree, and then flooded the area with water, and waited to see where the water drained the fastest.  When the water disappeared as if down a drain, they knew the tunnel was underneath that hole.  The South then blocked the tunnel with concrete barricades at the approximate location of the MDL.

Weird mock-up traditional village at the mouth of the tunnel

Weird mock-up traditional village at the mouth of the tunnel, and more statues of woodland creatures.

The Third Tunnel was never completed, but it extends almost 500 meters south of the MDL, and is big enough for 30,000 lightly armed soldiers PER HOUR to move through.  (Well…North Korean soldiers.  They are small.  Everyone else is too tall and fat from all the plentiful food to go through in anything but a crouched single-file.)  When it was discovered, North Korea insisted first that it was South Korea that had built it, but when the slope and dynamite blast marks proved it had been constructed from the North, they said it was a coal mine, going so far as to smear coal dust on the tunnel walls for added evidence.  But…there’s no coal in the earth there, so….yeah.

The Tram

The Tram

Anyway, there’s a groovy little tram you can take the 240 feet down into the tunnel to look around.  Photography was prohibited inside, so I can’t show you what it looked like, but if you’ve ever been on the Log Ride at Disneyland, imagine the tunnel was narrow enough to bump your head and elbows, and the logs moved at a pace of about one mile per hour.  At the bottom, you get off the tram, and march, single-file, down the tunnel almost to the concrete barricades.  Then, single-file, all the way back to the tram.  I am only 5’3”, and I had to bend slightly to get through the tunnel without knocking my head on the granite.  I can’t imagine 30,000 armed troops running through there.  But, that’s what the plan was, apparently.  It’s eery, especially because they have placed little bronze statues of woodland creatures down there, for no particular reason.  I mean, I could almost understand figurines of gophers or…I don’t know…dwarves.  But, deer and squirrels?  It was just weird.

Danger!

Danger!

There was no wandering around topside, though.  The area was surrounded by mines.  Mines, and a festive native village mock-up.  Go figure.

Next up was the “Freedom Bridge” over the Imjin River.  At the end of the Korean War, thousands of POWs returning from the North walked over this bridge to freedom.  Hence the name.  (Not to be confused with the “Bridge of No Return,” where POWs were forced to choose a side-North or South-and whichever way they crossed, there was no going back.  That’s a different bridge, elsewhere in the DMZ.)

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge is also sometimes called “Cow Bridge,” because in 1998, as part of a deal to provide economic assistance to the North, the founder of the Hyundai Corporation—who had come to Seoul from the North before the division, and was separated from his hometown and family for the rest of his life—delivered 1,000 head of cattle to the North Korean people over this bridge.

Wishes for Reunification on Ribbons

Wishes for Reunification on Ribbons

On the south side of the bridge, South Koreans have developed Imjingak, a sort of memorial park, where Koreans separated from family and friends in the North because of the division could go and console themselves with the illusion of being close to their lost loved ones.  There are restaurants and art exhibits, even an amusement park, that give this somber place a somewhat schizophrenic feel.

At Imningjak

At Imjingak

Imagine, if Imjingak had been built before the end of the war, the first thing POWs returning from North Korean prisons would have seen, is a Popeye’s Fried Chicken.

The best place to look at North Korea from the southern side, though, is Dora Observatory.  From a large platform on top of Mount Dora, you can look across the DMZ into North Korea.  Even without binoculars, you can see sentry posts along the DMZ, and a few villages along the border.

No photography beyond the yellow line--and nothing to photograph on this side of the line.

No photography beyond the yellow line–and nothing to photograph on this side of the line.

Photography, again, was prohibited anywhere close to the viewing platform.

Just 350 meters south of the border, inside the DMZ and visible with binoculars from the Dora Observatory platform, there’s a tiny, agricultural village called Daeseong-dong.  It’s inhabited, and its few residents are South Korean citizens, but they are exempt from taxation and national service duty.  They are, however, constantly watched, restricted in where they can go, and subject to a curfew.

On the other side, in the northern part of the DMZ, is the North Korean “Propaganda Village” (or “Peace Village” according to the North Koreans) of Kijong-dong.  Built in the late 1950s, the official North Korean account is that this town is a 200-family farm collective, with schools and a hospital.  But, it’s deserted, and always has been.  It was crafted to convey an appearance of Northern prosperity and plenty to a then very impoverished South Korea, and encourage defections to the North.  Until recently, propaganda broadcasts were blasted at the South from loudspeakers mounted on the buildings.  Without the aid of binoculars, you can see the ghost village in the distance, marked by a massive North Korean flag on a towering flagpole protruding from its center.  As of 2011, it was the third tallest flagpole in the world, at 525 feet.  The flag alone weighs about 600 pounds.  The flagpole was erected in the 80s, after the South Korean government had built a 323 foot tall flagpole in Daeseong-dong.  The North Koreans considered that antagonistic, so they responded by building a much taller, more impressive flagpole, so that anyone looking at the area from the Dora Observatory is crystal clear on who won the Korean flagpole version of “¿Quién es más macho?”

dorasanNearby is Dorasan Station, the northernmost railway station in South Korea.  There has been some cargo rail traffic across the border since 2007, mainly serving the Kaesong Industrial Region about 10 miles north of the DMZ.  dorsan buildingThat came to a screeching halt in April of this year, when North Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Region in the fracas that ensued after the enactment of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2087 prompted Kim Jong-un to declare the United States the “sworn enemy of the Korean people,” and announce plans to commence nuclear testing and development of long-range missiles.  But, there has been no passenger rail traffic across the border since the war.

Gates to the Pyongyang train platform...just in case.

Gates to the Pyeongyang train platform…just in case.

South Korea built the new, modern Dorasan Station to be ready to go as soon as Korea is reunified.  There are state of the art passenger platforms for yet-to-be-built rail lines to Pyeongyang, with signage already in place.  The ticket counter is already manned, and you can even buy a commemorative ticket to Pyeongyang, which gives you access to the platform.  But, no train is coming.  The station sits idle, except for two commuter trains per day from Seoul, for workers in Paju.

Someday.

Someday.

Dorasan Station is the only place we visited on the tour that did not loudly convey the palpable distrust between the two Koreas.  On the contrary, Dorasan Station was hopeful; a monument to the South Korean wish, if not optimism, that reunification really will, eventually happen.


Leave a comment

Equal Time For Dog Lovers…Sort Of

"Godabang" is a cat café chain

“Godabang” is a cat café chain

A couple weeks ago, I posted about a wonderful kitty café that I happened upon in Gyeongju, South Korea, where you can enjoy the fuzzy affections of a bevy of feline gigolos with your coffee.  I have found a few more since then; they are apparently very popular with city dwellers who can’t have pets in their homes.  There are even cat café chains, with locations all over.  But, not everyone loves the kittenzes as much as I do.  What about them?  Well, fear not, there are puppy cafés, too.

I found one in the Jangsan neighborhood of Haeundae Beach, in Busan.  I want to call it a Puppy Pub, or a Dawg Dive, but the establishment–on the second floor, over a pet store–only served foo-foo coffees and teas.  I don’t know why, but it seems to me that a venue catering to dog people should have a liquor license.  Beer and wine, at least.  Maybe it’s just me.  Anyway, no booze at this Canine Café.

The Canine Café. See the glass partition?

The Canine Café.
See the glass partition?

Right off the bat, I noticed a fundamental difference between this outfit and the cat cafés: the dogs are in a pen, separate from the café area.  It’s right next to it, but it’s divided by a low, transparent wall so the hounds can’t get to the people at the tables.  The front foyer gate opens into the puppy playpen, and that is where the coffee counter is, but the seating area is behind glass.  I didn’t like that.  I wanted to drink my coffee while I played with the pups.  But, then I learned why.  They pee.  They pee often.  They pee a lot.  Oh, so much pee….

cockerThere was an attendant who ran around behind them and cleaned it up as close to immediately as one could expect, so it didn’t really smell in there, but still, not appropriate for a food service area.  Cats prefer to retire to the privacy of a litter box to tinkle, so the cat café people can just put a little cat flap in the door to the litter box room, and trust the pusses to honor the system.  Dogs, not so much.  Not a bashful bladder in the group.  So, okay, I get it. They have to separate the room.

"I don't see you"

“I don’t see you”

The eight or nine pooches in the play area were all immaculately groomed, healthy-looking, and pretty well-behaved, but for the recidivist peeing (which, I guess, we can’t really blame on them.  It’s not like there was a dog door to a back yard where they could go outside).  But, there was something odd about them.  It took me a while to figure it out.  Then, it hit me.  They were ignoring me.

"Got any food?  No?  Okay, bye."

“Got any food? No? Okay, bye.”

Basically, except for one little cocoa-colored poodle who managed to feign interest in me for the minute or so it took to ascertain whether I had any food to give him, none of these dogs paid any attention to me at all.

"Is someone better coming?"

“Is someone better coming?”

They pretty much sat with their backs to me, or stood at the gate, waiting for someone better to come along (translation: someone with food).  I know what you’re thinking:  just give them some treats, and they’re yours.  Well, I thought of that, but the place specifically forbids feeding the dogs.  I can see why they wouldn’t allow people to bring their own food to give them; they couldn’t control the safety of what the dogs eat that way.  But, if they’re going to have such stuck up pups, they really should make some kind of treats/bribes available for purchase.  Baby carrots, or something healthy, so they don’t founder.  I dunno.  Something.

saint bernieIt was the darndest thing.  I can’t remember the last time I was around a dog that didn’t make a total nuisance of itself, jumping on me, licking my hands, staring intently at me while I’m reading or watching tv, or trying to stick its snout in my crotch.  They normally exhibit an extravagant enthusiasm level at my arrival that one just can’t expect from a cat.  I was at a total loss.  (Maybe they heard what I said about them being the easy girls of the animal high school….Which one of you blabbed?)

I sat there, trying in vain to entice a gorgeous, snow white Akita to come to me, my lame tongue clicking noises impotent against her indifference.  I recalled the cat café, and how surprised I had been at how attentive and affectionate all the kitties were with me at first glance.  Obsequious, almost.  Where the heck had I landed that cats are the attention-seeking trollops, and dogs are haughty and aloof?  I have really fallen down the rabbit hole!  Ooh…rabbits.  Now, there’s a great idea for a café!  A bunny bar!  Who’s in?