The Long Weekend: Part 3 – TULIPS! At Last.

In this final installment of The Long Weekend, having survived the farmland walk and been rescued by a kind movie producer, our heroes finally meet their happy ending. See the stunning sunlit flowers and marvel at the moonlit fairyland display! Find out what happens when they arrive at the pension they actually reserved, and see what happens when they try to use conventional transportation! And please, don’t forget to visit the Facebook page where you can see all the photos that wouldn’t fit here. 🙂


Tiptoe Through the Tulips

Finally, we arrived at our goal, a mere four and a half hours after we’d left our hotel that morning! The ticket gate had the prices listed, including a foreigner’s discount. When I asked for two tickets (in Korean) she actually asked me if we were foreigners (also in Korean). I managed to keep in my giggles, seeing as how we’re about as Caucasian as it gets and replied that we were. It was fairly obvious from the parking lot and the tents surrounding the park that this festival was a big deal, and we began to get excited again as we passed through the gate. Our ride-givers had evaporated, but I had seen them buy tickets too, so I was glad that they would at least enjoy the festival after having driven us out to it.

IMG_3269

Xi’an Botanical Gardens 2012

The last tulip festival I went to was at the botanical gardens in Xi’an, China in 2012 and it was really lovely. I have a small vault of pictures of the tulips, and of the other natural beauty of that park which upon review has made me question my recent camera choices. Phones are really convenient, but not as pretty for taking picures. Sigh. Anyway, under normal circumstances, I expect everything in China to be bigger (it’s like the Texas of Asia). The Jinhae cherry blossom festival had been amazing, but they didn’t have a cherry park that even came close to the one in Beijing. The splendor came from the fact that the whole town was basically converted for the festival. The tulip festival in China had been in a park that had taken us hours to walk around, but the one in Taean was bigger.

20160507_133020I don’t know if it was actually bigger in square meters, but it was definitely a better show. Not only were the paths lined with labeled examples of countless species of tulip, there were also beautiful scenes created by planting the flowers by color to paint a picture on the ground that we could view from a central platform on a hill. Not quite as intense as the Miracle Garden in Dubai, but a close second. There were structures all around us that were composed of wire, and I began to notice that they were covered in strings of lights that were not yet turned on. The website where I had found the festival said that it ran from 9am to 6pm, but I could not fathom why there would be so many strings of lights if they didn’t intend to have a night show.

20160507_133333Our original plan had been to depart before sunset (well, I thought it closed at 6pm after all) making any challenges to get to our (second) hotel slightly easier, but remembering the awesome difference at Jinhae from day to night, I began to lay the groundwork for our staying after dark. Throwing caution to the wind, I carelessly suggested that we didn’t need to worry about transportation yet, and that we would never forgive ourselves if we came all this way and then missed the night light show.

As we walked around the park, we got to see a wide range of flowers, mostly tulips but also plenty of foxgloves, pansies and some kind of very shiny nearly neon daisy-looking flower I’d never seen before. We saw the form of the giant Trojan horse, as well as many more displays of animals, giant plaster mushrooms, hearts, wings, fantasy islands in the lake, a tunnel of love prayers, and a giant Mona Lisa picked out in tulips. I can’t even possibly fit all the amazing pictures here, so please go see the rest on the Facebook album. The whole time the air was a mixture of the heady perfume of the flowers and the mouth-watering scents coming from the cooking tents.

20160507_143323We found an international food tent where we got some doner kebab (which is apparently the Turkish word for Shawarma). They had booths from several different countries, although the food was not always what I consider representative. Italy had some kind of deep fried “pizza” wrap. England was corn dogs and fried potatoes. Argentina had some serious meat kebabs (the kind on skewers), Japan had takoyaki, and I think America had coconuts. We found some ladies making fresh squeezed sugar cane juice at the Vietnam stand and in a fit of childhood nostalgia I got us a couple of these breezy decadent treats.

20160507_144004There were also several areas selling random stuff, not necessarily souvenirs, but just random stuff. The native Americans from Jinhae (or more likely a totally different group of native Americans, since they didn’t really look the same) were there performing. We stopped and listened for a while before I realized they were singing in Spanish, which just about made my head explode from culture clash. They were selling dream catchers, CDs of their performance, and other knickknacks that were a mishmash of native American jewelry styles. There were also some booths from Peru, India, and maybe Senegal with their vendors, clearly as foreign as we were, selling goods that must have seemed exotic to the local Koreans that made up 99.9% of the festival goers.

As we continued around, I found some shockingly orange tulips. The kind that make you go, “wow, does that color exist in nature?” and as we got closer, the answer turned out to be “no”. They were plastic. I couldn’t, at first, understand why there would be plastic tulips at a tulip festival until I began to notice the thin wires on the ground between them. Looking inside one, my suspicions were confirmed, there was a small light bulb in each one. They were LED tulips. From this point on, I began to notice more and more places that were hiding lights or LED displays until it became apparent that the whole park was set to light up after dark.

20160507_160024On one side of the festival, we came across a small menagerie with goats the kids could feed, an aviary with peacocks, geese and chickens, and a few adorable bunnies that reminded me of my own China-born furball of yore. Next to the animals, there was a tent filled with orchids and antiques. I’m not really sure why these two things went together, but we admired the antique armoirs and old-timey farming equipment alongside the beautiful hothouse orchids, including a room where the orchid pots had been artfully arranged to create a heart shape on one wall.

We’d arrived at the festival around 1:30 in the afternoon, and although we were taking our time, pausing for lots of photos, exploring every nook and cranny and taking regular snack breaks, we just barely felt that our daytime exploration was complete in time to have a short rest before sunset.

Walking in Fairyland

Some few of you have had the good fortune to visit Disneyland at night and you have an inkling of what we were about to witness. For the rest of you, I can only wish that one day you will have the magical experience that is walking through a giant beautiful park that is entirely lit up in colors.20160507_193328.jpg

We’d started walking at about 9-9:30 that morning and it was after 6pm when we decided to sit down for more than a quick break and wait for the sunset. It turned out to get chilly rather quickly when we weren’t moving or having the sun shine down on us, and soon we were grateful for the little cafes that popped up around the perimeter. When the first of the lights came on, we fetched ourselves some hot coffee and tried to plot the best path to see everything. Having explored the park by day, we had a pretty good idea where things were and how to get from one end to the other so our night walk didn’t take nearly as long, but it still took several hours.

20160507_200624_Richtone(HDR)

When we started, the sky was still shades of blue, pink, orange and purple with high stratus clouds reflecting the sunset back at us. The dusky hues made the balance between the flowers bright colors and the lights themselves striking in a way that full dark could not achieve. We oohed and aaahed at the lighted structures set up all around us. We paused every few steps as we walked around the lake, admiring the LED islands and the glowing reflections in the still water.

We walked into a circus tent of light strings and felt as though we’d stepped inside a meteor shower. We watched the glowing swans and flamingos nuzzle their luminescent mates in the lake. We skipped under trees wrapped in lights like giant’s wands branching to the sky. The tunnel that during the day was filled with paper love prayers became a river of lights by night, enchanting us for far longer than the daylight beauty had. A train that had been nothing but a wire frame by day became a full engine with hearts forming a tunnel behind it by night. The boats glowed, the windmill shimmered in rainbows, and the Trojan horse lit the sky like a beacon.

The bridges we had crossed by day were ribbons of light over the water. One was a miniature suspension bridge that the Korean fathers took great delight in shaking and swaying to entertain or pretend frighten their wives and children. The wings we’d seen earlier were now glowing as though they were the very wings of angels and we dutifully took our turn to pose with them. A vast wire structure shaped like a folded paper crane shifted through a whole color spectrum. There was a lighted carriage like the golden pumpkin from Cinderella, pulled by a giant white bird in flight.

Every fresh step brought some new delight and I could not help but feel like I’d somehow slipped through a door in space and time to some Neverland or Fairy Country. The lighted flowers, the shapes of wire and light, the towering structures and the islands of light reflecting in the water, birds of light flying, indistinguishable from their reflections, the tulip Mona Lisa picked out in lights along the ground, and the viewing hill itself glowing as if lit from within from the LED tulips lining it’s sides.

20160507_205945_Richtone(HDR)

Just as we managed to make our way to the last corner of the park and began to head back to the entrance, we spotted some strange lights off to one side, visible only partially through the trees. Neither one of us could remember having seen anything on that side of the park during the day. We felt sure that we’d explored every part possible, and yet in front of us, near the peacock’s cage, was a giant glowing arrow, pointing our way off to the right and into the woods.

As we followed the path, we found ourselves walking through a tunnel of lights that began to make me feel like I’d entered a psychedelic Alice style Wonderland. Islands and palm trees made of light stood out against the dark forest, pillars of light that swayed as we moved among them made me feel as though we were floating, or at very least, riding along the tracks of a semi-spooky ride in Fantasy Land. At the end of the path we encountered what had to be, at one point in the year, a giant Christmas tree, but it was not lit. Instead, we contended with a small menagerie of glowing and somewhat gruesome animals including a star turtle, some kind of death bunny (or maybe kangaroo), and a couple of who knows what’s trying to be a part of Kiss. Much like the daytime flowers, there are too many beautiful pictures to include here, so hop on over to Facebook to see them all.

The Only Taxi Ride

The final part of the mind-blowing spectacle having revealed itself to us, we noticed it was nearly 10pm and that most of the food stands had closed up and many of the other patrons had left. The parking lot had emptied quickly, and there was no line of taxis or buses waiting to take people away. This reliance on cars was another strange part of rural Korea. I’d become so impressed with and dependent on the excellent public transportation in Busan, it really hadn’t occurred to me that we could be stranded in Taean, especially when the Korean tourism branch of the government gave bus instructions on it’s website.

But, I was simply in too overwhelmingly good a mood for this to worry me any longer. I approached the security guard at the gate and asked her where we could find a taxi. She informed us that taxis had to be called, and with a little more help from Google, I managed to ask if she could call one for us and she agreed. It took about 3 minutes for a taxi to arrive, which was astounding considering how long it had taken us to find the place that afternoon. The driver dutifully plugged the address of our pension into his map app and drove us there. About halfway through the drive, I wondered why we weren’t having another awkward not quite bilingual conversation before I realized it was because we were paying him to drive. Blissful ease. It cost about 15$ and was worth every cent.

Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting new people, and the Koreans we’d met were all exceptionally kind folks. Plus, we’d been chauffeured around free of charge since we’d arrived the previous afternoon, but it’s HARD to have a conversation when neither of you really speaks the other’s language, and at this point in the night it was a relief just to sit back and relax.

Mong and Mong

When we arrived at the pension that I’d booked (for the first time), we realized it too was pretty far off the beaten track. I couldn’t see anything that looked like an office or front desk area, so I called the pension lady on the phone number provided in my booking confirmation email. I used my very limited Korean to ask if this was the correct pension, and to say we were the foreigners and that we were here. They weren’t artful sentences, but they got the point across and she came out to greet us quite quickly.

She expressed massive surprise that I could speak Korean (because we’d been using a translator the day before, aka Mr. Awesome) and I tried to reasure her that we had now exhausted all my Korean. She showed us to our room, which was totally adorable and had a lovely comfy bed. It looked quite like the pictures from the website, which was a relief, and there was even a cute little balcony that was all set up to barbecue on.

Another thing I’ve learned about pensions this weekend, aside from their apartment-like qualities, they are not particularly aimed at car-less people. The nearest place to buy food was not a comfortable walking distance, and it was clear that people here were having great family meals and not bringing in restaurant food. Had we known, we could have done some shopping in Daejeon, or even in Taean before we left the main bus terminal, but I’m so used to holiday resort areas being flooded with restaurants it just didn’t occur to me that we were basically renting a fancy cabin in the woods.

However, pension lady and Mr. Awesome had talked at some length about meals being provided if we needed them, which we did. And the duplex host (or more accurately his wife) had fed us the day before. So I asked rather timidly about the possibility of dinner as she led us out to her car where she’d been storing our luggage during the day. I felt bad because it was really a great deal later than we’d meant to be coming back, but the food stands at the park had all closed and I’d been unable to find any restaurants online that I could direct the taxi driver to. And we’d been walking all day on some ramen, kebabs, and coffee. We were hungry.

She seemed a little taken aback, but recovered quickly and asked if we’d like to come to her home where they were making samgyeopsal. Her small apartment was filled with her friends and two tiny dogs. They’d obviously been enjoying a relaxing dinner and some drinks just before we’d arrived, but they cleaned up the space and set the grill back out to cook a few more pork strips for us. The kimchi she served was cut on the spot from a whole head of cabbage stored in a glass container. I wondered if it was homemade and not store-bought. She filled up a bowl and I thought, there’s no way the two of us can eat that much kimchi, but we did. I tried really hard to use the lettuce wraps to eat the pork, but the lettuce was so huge and crunchy, I couldn’t take bites without it spilling out one end and I finally gave up and just ate the pork with rice and kimchi.

Again, there was no end to the surprise that we liked Korean food, and I’m optimistic that my messy lettuce wrap eating was just put down to ‘cute foreigner trying her best’. I didn’t even realize how hungry I was until we started eating, but a full bowl of rice, half a bowl of kimchi and a couple rashers of samgyeopsal later, I finally felt like a human again. Somewhere in the middle of eating, our hosts seemed to notice that we were a wee bit ravenous, and asked if we had not eaten lunch. This was mostly accurate, we’d only had a snack by Korean standards and they seemed more comfortable once they realized why we were so famished.

Part of the reason that we’d had so many linguistically challenging conversations along with our meals and rides is the deep cultural idea of company in Korea. In America (and I suspect in Canada too) if we were staying in a B&B or something like a pension, our hosts might feed us, but would not be likely to eat with us. In Korea, eating is very communal. At school, I can’t ever eat as fast as my co-teachers and I have to reassure them it’s ok to leave before me if they have stuff to do. If I forget to do this, they will just stay, making conversation with me so I don’t feel like I have to eat alone. So our hosts at the duplex and the Mong and Mong pension wanted to stay with us while we ate and tried their best to stimulate conversation.

I think in general, a lot of people I met were slightly disappointed my Korean wasn’t better until we got to the part of the conversation where they asked me how long I’d been in Korea and I said 2 months. I mean, I feel guilty I don’t do a lesson or review every day, but this trip sure made me aware of how much Korean I’ve really picked up in such a short time while not being enrolled in a class of any sort. And of course, how much more I really need to learn, like all the question words, a few more direction words, and the second set of numbers (cause you know, a language needs two ways to count).

After dinner, we discovered our sunburns in the bathroom mirror and added hats and sunscreen to the list of things to bring on our next rural Korean adventure. The bed was quite comfortable with an excess of pillows (a hallmark of luxury in my book), and our array of ersatz neighbors kept the noise down until around 9am, which is really late in my experiences here. As we were getting dressed and packed, our hostess came around with some ramen and kimchi which she cooked for us in the next room’s kitchen then served us and sat down to eat with us again. During our fumbled breakfast conversation, she indicated that we should return and spend some time with her during the summer vacations, so at least I know she didn’t totally resent our presence?

Home Again, Home Again Jigitty Jog

After breakfast, we packed up our things and tidied up after ourselves then headed outside where our hostess was prepared to drive us back to the bus station. I’m still of two minds on how to leave a review of this place. Double booking our room was a major customer service no-no, but she picked us up from the bus station, would have driven us back from the tulip festival if I’d called her, fed us dinner and breakfast, and drove us back to the bus station. All of which are well above and beyond the customer service I would have expected from a place I booked online. Calling us a taxi or helping us order some takeout would be about what I would have been satisfied with if I found myself too far from the bus stops or restaurants to deal with it on my own. So, yeah, she messed up pretty bad, but then did a tidy bundle of cool things too. I guess I’d recommend the place, with the caveat that you get someone who speaks Korean to call as soon as you make the reservation and double confirm it.

Once we reached the bus terminal, it was a straight shot home reversing our path to get there. We took the very lux bus back to Daejeon where we spent about 15 agonizing minutes outside trying to figure out how someplace so close could be so insanely hot and humid while the coast was still cool and pleasant light jacket weather. I am never moving inland. We’re going to Seoul in June and I’m already trying to figure out how to pack the lightest weight clothes I own for that nonsense. Then we stopped for lunch in the train station and found out everyone was out of ice cream. Seriously, that place was super hot. It’s early May and I can’t even begin to imagine what the inland cities will be like in the real summer. The final leg of our journey was a superfast train that brought us right back to cool coastal Busan and the familiar sights of my newest nest. There’s nothing quite like a crazy rural lost and found adventure to make your new digs feel like home sweet home.


I’m starting to feel like Korea is one giant festival season. I know it’s spring, and basically every new growth plant flower festival is happening, but the summer is full of summer flower festivals and fireworks festivals and beach festivals, and the fall has floating lantern festivals and harvest festivals, and I’m sure the winter has things I’ve yet to learn about too. Even on the odd weekend I didn’t expect to go to a festival, they’ve just turned up where I happened to be.

I’d be more apologetic that it takes me so long between posts, or that they are floods of events when they do happen, but the reality is there’s just too much! Talk about first world problems, oh no! Too many festivals! But seriously, any culture that takes their fun this, well, seriously has got to be doing something right. So here’s to you Korea, 건배! May we never grow weary of your charms.

Advertisements

The Long Weekend: Part 2 – Where Nothing Goes According to Plan

When last we left our intrepid heroes, they were being driven into the rural fog laden farmlands of Taean by the manager of the pension who had given away their previously booked room! In this installment of The Long Weekend, find out where they end up staying for the night, how the evening progresses with a new host, and what befalls our heroes the next morning!


The Unexpected Stay

When we arrived, after twisting turning gravel and dirt roads, at what looks like a cute little farm house kind of place with a man working on his garden in the front yard, we were told this is where we would stay for the night. He opened up what turned out to be one half of a duplex, and started showing us around the spartan space. There were a table and chairs in the kitchen, and a TV on one wall, though no sofa. The bathroom looked clean and roomy, but the bedroom was completely bare.

I had been holding myself together reasonably well up until this point. I don’t like it when my plans fall apart in an oh-crap-what-now way, and I’m not used to riding in random peoples cars. Fortunately, I had my companion who also happens to be a dude, making me feel more safe than I might otherwise as a woman alone. It was still unduly stressful, and the bare bedroom was the absolute last straw. Did this woman who gave away my beautiful room (it was so pretty) really expect me to sleep on the floor in this shack in the woods!!?! ARGH!!!

Be proud of me. I didn’t yell at anyone. Not once. When confronted with the bare bedroom, I allowed my affable smile to turn dark and my brows to furrow in displeasure. We no longer had a translator, so I was still trying to do my best to explain in simple words and signs what the problem was, and finally they understood I wanted a mattress. She explained that there was no mattress here, but that we would have one tomorrow at her pension. Yes, really, again, (in my head only, or possibly under my breath) this is the reason I booked your room ahead of time, so I would HAVE A BED. The lady and the host opened the closet and began to lay thick quilts on the floor in layers to create a softer sleeping surface for us.

20160506_192929

We were in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to stay and no way to get anywhere that wasn’t dependent on these people in front of us. This was not the time to appear to be the kind of people they didn’t want around. One of my expat/teacher skills is talking in big words to another native English speaker/adult while using a calm and pleasant tone of voice so that no one knows what we’re talking about. I quickly talked over my feelings with my companion, expressing as much of my frustration and disappointment as possible without letting it out in my voice, then taking some time to consider the fact that we’d been rushed from one decision to another, first by Mr. Awesome (who rushed us to buy bus tickets we never used, and rushed us to get into the car with the pension lady without a complete understanding of where we were going or what to expect) and then by pension lady (who rushed us into the car and then into this house, and was trying to rush us into meals and car rides the next day too).

I knew in my heart and my head that all of these people, Mr. Awesome, pension lady, and duplex host guy, all wanted to help us out, but it was still an overwhelming experience. Finally, I came around to accepting our situation, hard floor bed and all, and I agreed to the arrangement. Pension lady took off, saying she’d see us tomorrow, and duplex host guy said something about dinner that I didn’t entirely understand. It seemed to be something along the lines of dinner in his house with his family, and I figured someone would tell us more when we needed to know.

Accidental Dinner Guests

As we stood on the front porch drinking some of the wine my companion had brought along, our host came out to fetch us. When we walked into their side of the duplex, I was rather taken aback by the fact that he and his wife apparently lived in a single room while leaving the two room side of the duplex empty to rent out. Their bed, which was also a thin futon/thick quilt on the floor, was just next to the small dining table, and their laundry rack was set up along side one wall with clothes hanging from it. Korea is a mind blowing combination of developed and developing that I’ve just never seen anywhere else. I’ve probably mentioned before that during the war, close to 90% of the buildings in Korea were destroyed and now they have cities like Seoul and Busan which are full of skyscrapers and ultra modern services. I got so used to the modern life in Busan that it just didn’t occur to me how provincial life here could be in a smaller city.

Our host asked us, via Google Translate, if we liked Korean food. Without exception, every Korean I’ve met has been surprised that we white folks not only can eat their food, but actually enjoy it. We were treated to a home cooked meal of some kind of fish that was cooked whole, some spicy gelatin dish, kimchee soup, other green based banchan and some seaweed wraps. Our host also broke open a bottle or two of soju to share with us, and although they spoke about as much English as I do Korean (maybe even less), we used what we knew combined with hand gestures and our phone’s translating apps to have a reasonable conversation over dinner.

After dinner, we sat out on the porch a little longer, enjoying the country sounds of the frogs croaking and seeing the fireworks from the revelers down on the beach. Despite the comedy of errors that had led us there, as I sat there full of good food and wine, taking in the night, I finally started feeling better.

Diverse Alarms

We went inside as it began to get chilly and started to wind down for sleeping, laying in our floor-bed, reflecting on the day and our plans for the morning, and telling silly stories about our pasts. Finally I was ready to put out the lights and go to bed, but my companion decided to step out to the porch for one last cigarette. From the bathroom, I could hear the repeated whir of the electric lock and the thunk thunk of the door not opening to repeated pulling and pushing. I emerged from my pre-sleep ablutions to see if I could decipher the mystery of the door. I was successful in my attempts to open it, but this was quite unfortunate as the alarm promptly went off. Our host had entered some kind of code when he opened the door for us upon our arrival, but didn’t share the code with us, and we had simply not closed the outer door until after diner. I had no idea it would go off when opened from the inside nor how to silence it.

I sent my companion to knock on our hosts’ door and ask for help, as there was no way we could possibly sleep through the racket. Honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t come running out when it went off, it was earsplittingly loud, sounding with at least two tones on two different rhythms. The jangling noise sadly ripped away all of my nice peaceful post dinner feelings and did basically exactly what alarms are supposed to do, which is to force you into a state of fight or flight in preparation to deal with whatever emergency is about to happen. I sat on the not-bed, listening to music in my headphones (which did not do anything to drown the alarm) and playing games to distract myself while waiting for the hosts to enter the code. I’m sure nearly everyone has experienced that neighbor’s car alarm at 12am, that thing where you tell yourself that surely they’ll go out and stop it any second now, as time is distorted while your nerves slowly erode and you’re sure it’s been going for half an hour but the clock says it’s only been five minutes, and you’re bartering with yourself about how many more minutes you’ll let it go on before you get up and go bang on the neighbor’s door to make them fix it… or possibly before you go to the car and disconnect the battery. So, yeah, all of that, except it was our door.

My companion finally returned with the code, but no combination of buttons or opening/closing the door would convince it to silence and he had to return to our host’s side of the building again. I fled back into the bedroom, and when the noise finally, blissfully silenced, I called out a plaintive apology in Korean to our hostess who had had to come out of her own bed to deal with the issue aparently, I learned later, by removing the batteries.

I’m not sure if it’s the heated Korean floors or the total physical and mental/emotional exhaustion that I endured that day, but the floor-bed was much easier to sleep in than I had feared, and soon I was blissfully unconcious in preparation for our next day’s adventure.

Can You Get There From Here?

In the morning, our two main concerns were what to do with our luggage and how to get to the tulip festival. I’d done my best to explain (using the internet) that we planned to go to this festival Saturday, that it was the whole reason we were in this place. I didn’t want our hosts being confused that we would sit around doing nothing until they decided to give us a ride somewhere else. I’d told Mr. Awesome, pension lady and the duplex host guy at least twice a piece. Maybe I sounded like a nag, but I did NOT want to miss out on the whole reason we were there.

Part of the plan of staying in the same hotel (pension) for two nights is the ability to leave your luggage in the room and go out to adventure for the day. Since our plan had been massively interrupted by the need to spend our two nights in two separate places, we now had no idea what to do with the bags for the day. It was my plan to ask our host if we could just leave them with him and then come pick them up on our way to the other pension later in the evening. This seemed reasonable because pension lady had told us several times that her house was nearby, and the tulip festival was quite far (15km or so) from both of them.

It took me a little while to get my point across through the screen window, but once I was sure they understood me, they said no. There was some further attempt at communication, but it was well beyond our bilingual abilities or the translating app (which is only good for words or short phrases), so we tried to call some better bilingual people we knew. My companion tried to call Mr. Awesome, but didn’t get through, so I called my co-teacher, apologizing profusely for disturbing her holiday and trying to explain the situation as quickly as possible. There was some extensive back and forth, and at some point my companion did get in touch with Mr. Awesome, but as his English was not as good as my co-teacher’s, I think it caused more confusion than it fixed. I had to reassure the host (via translator) that we didn’t need him to get us to the festival, we could take the bus and follow the directions on the map app. There was a moment where he almost called us a taxi (which in retrospect would have been much easier and not that expensive, but I like using local buses, you see more), and we finally concluded all the arrangements.

He agreed to take our bags over to the other pension for us later in the day while we were out, so that we would not need to come back to his place at all. Bearing in mind this long suffering man and his wife had not been hired by us in any capacity, but rather drafted into service by the person whom we had contracted for lodging with, my companion wanted to gift him with the last bottle of wine he’d brought with him. For the first time since arriving in this country, I actually had to go through the three times offering routine I’ve only ever read about in Korean (and for that matter Japanese) gift giving rituals. I held the bottle with both hands because I really wanted to try to get it right, and it wasn’t until the third time I offered it that he finally accepted.

As we set about wrangling our bags into as compact and easy to carry packages as possible, he began to fret again about how we would get to the tulip festival. I showed him the map, and the instructions for the bus (which were in Korean, btw) and he insisted on giving us a ride to the bus stop. Which since he did not know the whereabouts of, he asked his wife who told him, and we were off. In entirely the wrong direction.

Our walk from the pension to the bus stop would have been about 15-20 min and the weather that day was beautiful, and we didn’t have to carry our luggage, so I didn’t care too much, but our very helpful host drove us in the complete opposite direction of our target bus stop and dropped us off in the middle of a fish festival on the coastline.

The Long Walk

At this point, I passed through frustration into amusement, because there’s only so many things that can go non-tragically wrong before you just have to give in and start laughing. I looked up our location on the map app and discovered it WAS a  bus stop, but there wouldn’t be a bus for at least 2 hours. Deciding against waiting at the fish festival (remember, we were just at one of those two days ago), we darted into a nearby cafe for some caffeine and decided to try our luck trekking to the correct bus stop anyway.

Now, map software is only as good as the people on the ground finding roads. You may have noticed that dirt roads, driveways, alleys and parking lots tend not to be on your map? Well, Korea is full of tiny roads. In the big cities, most of these tiny roads are actually on the Korean map app, Naver Maps (tho not Google) because they are stuffed end to end with tiny businesses, but Taean is a much more provincial place and these were dirt and gravel “roads” that were lined with homes and farms. Our map app simply had no notion that these existed and directed us in a straight line from point A to point B. It’s not that hard to keep going the right direction via existing roads, but there’s no way to tell if there’s a faster way, or how long it will take.

We walked through the neighborhood, through some farmland, through a national park and campground and eventually stopped for breakfast at a convenience store. My companion du jour is Canadian and share’s my childhood memories of huge vast swaths of national forest. Korea is a tiny little peninsula and so the campgrounds were little postage stamp sections of forest where tents were practically back to back between the trees. On one side of a road would be tents and trees abutting the ocean, while on the other was a large church and tourist information center looking as suburban as anything.

20160507_104529Convenience stores in Korea not only sell cup noodles, but supply hot water, disposable chopsticks and a place to munch your snack/meal. So we bought some ramen and sat down at the picnic table out front to have breakfast. I was starting to feel like we were the only white people in town… maybe ever, the way people stared at us. In Busan, I can go my whole work week without seeing another foreigner, but the Koreans here in Busan are more urbane about it, either simply not caring or being much more subtle with their staring. On top of that, there’s some serious stereotypes about how white folks eat, travel, go on vacation and sitting out front of this convenience store eating ramen broke them all.

I tried to ask directions a few more times on the second half of our walk, but the idea of a bus stop seemed to baffle everyone I talked to, which was more than a little worrying. About an hour and half after we’d set off from the “wrong” bus stop, we finally sighted the one we’d been aiming for! The schedule indicated we had another hour to wait anyway, so we settled into the shaded seating area across from the panoramic farmland and reflected on our morning.

Accidental Hitchhiking

The cars that drove by often slowed down to gawp at us through their windows, my companion managed to use his newly learned Korean to find the bathroom at the gas station down the road, and I chatted with some friends on Facebook about the general absurdity of the last 24 hours. When our bus time finally arrived, we stood near the road so we would be sure to see it and to be seen. All the buses up to that point had been clearly charted tour buses, so we were very excited to see a bus with a number on the front, like a city bus, come our way. But then the driver waved a sort of dismissive “no” at us and kept going! I’m not sure if he was supposed to stop or not, but no other buses were forthcoming and I began to consider the reality that we’d have to walk up to the gas station and see if we could convince the clerk there to call us a taxi after all.

As we were debating our options, a car pulled into the dirt lot near the bus stop and the people within proceeded to stare at us quite intently. Although several drivers had slowed down to stare before, no one had actually stopped and it was making me a little uncomfortable. I tried to avoid eye contact and focus on solving the mystery of the missing bus. This is solid proof of my cultural biases. As an American and a woman (often travelling alone) I just do not engage with people who are in a position to do things like kidnap me, force me into a car in the middle of nowhere and lock me in a rape cabin. It’s not something I spend a great deal of time thinking about, it’s just a habit to avoid eye-contact, not go near the strange car, and get to a public place if they don’t push off. On reflection, it’s rather sad that this is my default setting and it makes me despair just slightly for the culture that taught me this as a survival technique. Oh, America.

Finally, the driver rolled down his window and called out to us. He asked us where we were tyring to go. I could see that he had a woman with him in the passenger’s seat, but old habits die hard and I still only walked about half the distance to the car before answering that we were waiting for the bus to take us to the Tulip Festival. He briefly discussed something with the woman and then gestured for us to get in the car.

I’ve never ever hitchhiked before.

I’ve taken rides from people I was paying (taxis, Uber, hotel drivers to and from airports and train stations, ride share, and someone’s cousin who needed 5$), and I’ve taken rides for free from friends of friends (people I don’t know, but the person I’m with does). But I’ve never flat up taken a ride for free from a complete stranger. Would I have done it if I had been alone? I don’t know. There’s a good chance I would have taken a taxi much earlier in the day if I’d been alone. Partially for safety and partially because it’s more boring to walk aimlessly for hours without someone to talk to. But I was with my Canadian companion, who happens to be a rather tall, broad-shouldered totally gay male and is just fine with pretending to be my BF as needed to keep up appearances. Go Beards!

Thus it was that we decided to accept the ride as just one more aspect of our crazy weekend. On the way, we encountered some traffic, so the ride was a bit longer than anticipated. Our driver’s girlfriend spoke better English, but was clearly also much more reticent to do so, and the conversation involved a lot of re-translations. He told us he was a Korean movie producer and we tried to talk a little about our favorite Korean movies, but since I’ve only watched them randomly on Netflix, I couldn’t remember any of the titles in Korean at all. We had the normal foreigner conversations of where are you from, what do you do here, etc. But this soon exhausted our conversational abilities and they set about seriously trying to find the festival.

I showed them the route on the Korean map app I had, but they clearly didn’t know how to read it. Not the Korean, obviously, but the satellite map with GPS part. Instead, they asked every traffic cop we passed how to get there, and eventually started asking people walking on the side of the smaller roads. As a result, we missed two turn offs that would have taken us there, and went all the way around the park before approaching the parking lot from the opposite side. I sort of understood why people in the ME had a hard time with map apps, but Korea is supposed to be one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and unlike our hosts from the night before who might have simply been too old or rural to learn, this guy was a movie producer and probably not much older than me. They both had new smart phones and used translating apps, so as far as I can tell it’s more about maps than technology, but it was still a bemusing barrier.


Having survived the night, our intrepid heroes relied upon the kindness of strangers to get them to their final destination. Stay tuned for the final installment of The Long Weekend: Part 3 – TULIPS! at last…

The Long Weekend: Part 1 – Buses, Trains & Anchovies

Namhae Anchovy Festival (May 5)

This week in May turned out to be a four day long holiday weekend for us. Thursday was Children’s Day, which meant of course no school, but most businesses had it as a holiday as well. For about a week beforehand, there was much debate about what would be done with the following Friday. For a while it looked like we would have to come into work after all, but the Korean government stepped in at the last moment and declared a temporary federal holiday so that we could have a 4 day weekend in order to “boost the economy”. While we were debating what to do with our extended holiday that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg while all of Korea and Japan were simultaneously enjoying a long holiday, I saw an advert on one of the local FB pages I follow to stay informed.

The Korean government has stepped up their tourism game recently after some flack from the media about Korea’s low tourism income. So in addition to all the English language websites where I find my festival info, and all the English (and Chinese and Japanese) in the bus and train stations, there’s also a budget for treating foreigners to free stuff. In this case, it was a free trip to Namhae Island to celebrate the Anchovy Festival.

20160505_164632

I have never especially thought of anchovies as a thing to celebrate, but I like islands and free trips, so we signed up. Namhae is a good distance from Busan, and it was over 4 hours later when we finally arrived at 2pm. The festival grounds were right on the water and provided a wealth of vendors, activities and food. We watched kids play in giant 20160505_171113bubbles floating in a pool. Two of our own retinue eventually tried it out, and while they looked like fun devices, they weren’t available on the ocean. We watched young and old try to catch fish by hand in a similar large but shallow pool. They were impressively large fish too, we’re talking a good meal, not a pet goldie. t At one end of the festival, there was a large stage set up a with an array of entertainment and the focus of the festival was, of course, the food!

After our 4+ hour bus ride, we were all quite hungry and so we explored the food booths to see what local anchovy dishes were around. Finally we settled on a mix of grilled anchovies, deep fried battered anchovies and an anchovy pajeon (a kind of savory pancake). Plus, I saw they were serving the dong dong ju that I’d tried in Jinhae so I ordered a bowl for the table so everyone could taste it. We also found a booth selling makoli (막걸리) cocktails, mixing the makoli with grenadine, Hennessy and ginger ale and serving it up at 1$ a cup.

20160505_153403There was a brief display of some kind of water board device (not the torturing one) that basically allowed it’s wearer to fly on jets of water. It looked like nothing so much as a classic Aquaman move and the audience was suitably impressed. There was some jazz improv saxophone music, and a dance performance that seemed to be an imitation of some kind of ancient ritual. Folks were dressed in traditional clothes and made offerings to an actor in a straw beast costume until the offerings were accepted. As they danced around the made up village square, a man in an old fashioned clown costume capered around the performers and audience making ribald jokes and gestures. He encouraged the male audience members to stuff money in the bra and panties he had on over a white shirt and pants set, but under his clown costume, and then he got the ladies attention and made an… amusing shape at his crotch with his wrinkled hands. It was nice to see the Koreans around me laughing along and not being too embarrassed. We took our time walking up and down the seaside, checking out the wares and goodies, listening to the music and generally being relaxed.

Sometime around sunset, the K-pop performance started, and I went in search of the oysters I’d seen advertised earlier in the day. Although I didn’t realize it, the oysters were part of a set meal, so when I tried to order some a la carte (the way oysters in shell are typically served in the US), the servers weren’t quite sure what to do with us. One of them shelled a few so we could taste them, then wandered off before we could pay. It took quite a lot of effort to get someone to come back, and even more to explain that we just wanted to pay for the ones that we had eaten, not to order the set meal. Fortunately, we had Jinju with us that day, so she was able to explain (in Korean) much better than I. Even then the concept itself was so foreign that it took her several tries. Finally, they said we could pay 10$, and they started shelling more oysters. I thought they’d decided that we hadn’t quite eaten 10$ worth the first time and would make up the difference, but they just didn’t stop shelling! Finally, the lady explained she wouldn’t charge us for the rest because she wanted us (the foreigners) to have a good experience! Lovely! They were some of the best steamed oysters I’ve ever had. Jinju had never tried an oyster before and we finally convinced her. She was squeamish at first, because oysters are not the most attractive food especially right out of the shell, but she expressed surprised delight when she finally worked up the nerve.

We made our way up to the stage to see some of the K-pop performance. The musicians did more than sing and dance and I got the impression they were playing their instruments, not just going through the motions. Since it was children’s day, there was a whole stage area near the front just for the kids to dance in and they were enjoying the heck out of it.

20160505_202320

After the K-pop concert, there was a light show scheduled on the water, but since it was running a little late, the Namhae government provided makoli coctails and a light snack to anyone who wished it, then we all sat down on the steps to watch the light show over the water.

13170697_10101412013875481_879232912_o

There was a jetty (or maybe a quay, it was dark) that had some large LED pillars set up on it and the show primarily consisted of a variety of colors and patterns on these pillars, their reflections dancing in the sea, set to some music and interspersed with a few fireworks. It was certainly pretty, and the weather was nice, so we weren’t upset by the lack of grand spectacle or anything, but it wasn’t a jaw dropper… until… Aquaman came back. That’s right, the guy with the strap on levitating water jets now dressed in a color shifting LED suit came out onto the water to do more tricks and dancing in mid-air set against the backdrop of the lighted pillars and fireworks. The audience was certainly thrilled, but you have to know what you’re looking for in a Korean audience. They aren’t really big on screaming cheering support, but the performers and coordinators clearly knew they were into it, because he did so many encores that the jet ski powering his flight suit ran out of gas half-way through the third “last song”.

Enjoy the video and check out the rest of the photos here.

Full of great food and great sights, we loaded back on to the bus to return home. I don’t know if Namhae is a place I would have ever thought to go on my own simply because of the distance from Busan and the remote/rural nature of the island, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to go. I feel like I got a good taste of local Korean culture, the kind of thing they do for themselves and not for tourists or urban sophisticates. I’ll definitely keep my eye on this group (#enjoykorea) to see what other trips they have to offer us in the future. I got home close to midnight, and although I’d originally planned to leave for Taean at 9am the next morning, I gave myself permission to skip the alarm clock and have a late start if my body needed it. Little did I know what the next day would have in store…

Taean Journey & Tulip Festival (May 6-8)

The promise of the long weekend lured me into intercity travel. Although I would have loved to go to Japan, it turns out the two countries share so many holidays that it would have been crazy crowded and expensive, so I found this cool looking Tulip festival instead. As part of the ongoing effort to increase foreign tourism here, taean mapthe government runs a nifty website that tells you when and where various festivals around Korea are. I simply plugged our weekend into the search parameters and bam! – full list of all the haps. Even the lantern festival we’d attended locally the previous weekend was on the list! My companion and I decided we really wanted a nature weekend, so I looked at the events that centered around nature, and by coolness rating and distance, we narrowed it down to Taean. Taean is on the west coast of the Korean peninsula and much closer to Seoul than Busan. Google seemed to think it would take us about 5-6 hours to get there, so I booked us a room for 2 nights, figuring we could leisurely travel Friday and Sunday, leaving all of Saturday to explore.

To Taean and On

Taean is also covered in beachfront national parks, so even though I couldn’t find anything else attraction-wise in the town, I reasoned if the Tulips weren’t all that, we could go hang out on a beautiful beach or walk through a pretty forest.

I booked our room on booking.com, because I’ve used it a million times and never had an issue. I don’t know if our issue stemmed from Korean culture not being 100% up on online booking, or if it was just that this place was tiny and not well organized, but we’ll get to that later.

Jinhae was my first attempt to travel outside Busan on my own, and Taean was my first overnight outside Busan since arriving in Korea. I’d had some experiences with the intercity buses, and I didn’t really think the trains could be that different, so with our itinerary in mind, we marched down to the Busan train station Friday morning to buy our tickets. Unfortunately (I knew from previous research) we couldn’t take one train all the way to Taean, so we got tickets to go to Daejeon, which was a little more than half-way there. Google isn’t great for intracity directions, but it did let us know a good route to travel between cities.

I heard rumors before I moved here that the inland cities and coastal cities had massively different weather, but Oh Em Gee. As soon as we stepped off the train in Daejeon, we were sticky with sweat and humidity. We moaned and groaned all the way to the intercity bus terminal where we got our next tickets to Taean and promptly went on a quest for something frosty. I found an apple-kiwi-kale smoothie, which made me feel almost at home. I think I could have liked Daejeon a lot if it weren’t for the fact that they already had our August weather in early May.

The bus to Taean was really lux. There were huge comfy seats that reclined and had foot rests, but we didn’t sleep. I decided that the long hours of travel were the perfect time to force my companion to learn the Korean alphabet. I say “force”, but he’s been here 5 months and can’t read the signs, he knew it was time too. To give you an idea of how easy this thing is, I started teaching him letters in Daejeon at the terminal, and we were done with everything except for the “y” sound by the time we got to Taean, with plenty of time for practice and random road trip conversations. So if you’re coming to Korea, you can easily learn the alphabet on the plane ride over and give yourself an easier time of it here.

When we got off the bus in Taean, my directions to the hotel advised me to take a rural bus so many stops over to the something-something stop, then walk for a little while. OK! Rural bus! Adventure! GPS! Can’t find it on the bus board! (which, btw is only in Hangeul, there are no English letters anywhere in this bus station, even the bathroom is only in Hangeul without pictograms– why we should all be able to read the alphabet). Korean people are insanely helpful. I’ve been told that basically all of them want to help us foreigners, but are just scared to speak English. I started showing the directions to people and asking where it is (in my bad Korean), and it seems like it does in fact leave from this bus station, but I still had no idea where or how to get a ticket. Finally, as we were about to give up and hail a taxi (I have the hotel’s address in Korean in the confirmation email) a nice man with good English showed up and asked where we were trying to go.

I showed him the email and he said we could buy bus tickets here; he’d even show us how. He went into the bus station and asked a few people which bus to take to get to where we wanted to go, then bought our bus tickets for us. I tried to pay, and he just would not let me. He walked us outside and showed us where the bus would come. While we were waiting, for reasons I’m still not quite sure of, he asked me to pull up the email again so he could see the phone number of the hotel and give them a call. And just as well he did.

The Case of the Missing Room

When he got ahold of someone there, he was told that there are no rooms. I thought maybe there was some confusion, they thought we wanted a room, but everything was booked. So I told him, ‘it’s ok, we have a reservation’. ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘It’s full, there are no rooms.’ ‘But we booked the room online’, I say again. Apparently the hotelier gave away our room. Even though we had booked it online and received a confirmation. Grr.

So there we were at this rural bus station in a tiny town that we have traveled all day to get to, with no hotel room. The very nice man had more Korean conversation on the phone, then told us that the lady at the hotel would come and pick us up then take us to another hotel for the night.

*blink* Ok.

I should pause here. I keep using the word “hotel”, but that is really misleading. In Korea, there is a thing called a “pension” which has nothing to do with your retirement fund at all. A pension is a house or apartment that a group of people will rent for a night or a weekend to have a party in, or stay in when they travel. It’s a little like AirBnB, in that, you’re staying in a full on home with amenities, rather than just a room with a toilet. So, we didn’t book a hotel per se, we booked a pension.

We waited some more. The nice guy bought us coffee (again, I really tried to pay). He told us that he was an engineer and usually worked in Mongolia. He wasn’t afraid to use his English because all the people he works with have to communicate in English, even though none of them are from English speaking countries (Russia, China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and the Philippines), it’s the only language they all have in common. He also said his mother and sister were living in Nevada, and that he was working to join them, but that the US immigration paperwork was taking several years.

Soon the lady from the pension we booked showed up and more arguing ensued between her and our newfound defender/translator. I don’t know the full extent of what was said, but I know that she claimed she tried to notify me of the cancellation (which she did not do via the booking.com site). Since cell phone telemarketing is legal here, I don’t answer my phone unless I know the number. Even if I had answered, she didn’t speak English and my Korean is lousy so I probably wouldn’t have understood and ended up hanging up on her. She didn’t leave any messages or try to email me, which I could have at least asked a Korean friend to help translate. This minimal effort on her part meant I had little sympathy for her lack of business acumen in this department, and pretty much still considered our lodging to be her responsibility.

Then she said that she could find us another room, but we’d have to pay extra for it. No, no and no again. I pulled out my email confirmation to show her the amount that I agreed to pay for 2 nights. She apparently bitched enough that our new friend/helper pulled out his wallet (again) and handed her some money!! I pleaded with him not to. We had a deal and we would pay her the agreed amount, no one should have had to pay any extra because she made a mistake and double booked our room. All I can really say out of it, is that Korean hospitality and helpfulness blows me away every time. I’ve helped visitors to my home country, and I’ve even helped tourists in countries I know better than they, but the lengths this guy went to to make sure we were taken care of were truly extraordinary.

Although he never translated it fully, I rather got the impression that her lame excuse for giving away our room was “it’s a holiday weekend”. No really? Could that be why I booked in advance instead of relying on finding something when we arrived? I might be bitter about this.

In the car on the way to wherever she was taking us, she got Mr. Awesome back on the phone and started explaining stuff about food and schedules. We were told that we could get dinner and breakfast at the place we were on our way to, and that since we would be staying in her pension the second night, we should let her know if we need dinner or breakfast there. Ok, cool. I like being fed and this place is straight up in the middle of nowhere. Like, we’re driving past farms and fields and it’s all misty-foggy and there are these creepy AF robotic traffic cops waving at us as we drive by, and we’re sitting in the back seat of this car that belongs to some woman we don’t know from Eve. But hey! It’s an adventure!

Then she told us that she’d pick us up to bring us to her pension the next day. Which seems nice, until she said “at 2pm”. Remember the whole reason we’ve gone through 6 hours of trains and buses and total confusion to get to this middle of nowhere stretch of coast? The Tulip Festival? And Saturday is our explore Taean day because we have to take 6 hours of buses and trains back to Busan on Sunday? And this lady wants us to sit around on our hands until 2pm? Awww heeeeell nah. We have come all this way to see some nature, we are not sitting around at some pension until 2pm on our sightseeing day. I tried to explain this (with a great deal of restraint and politeness), via Mr. Awesome on the phone, but I wasn’t confident about how much got through.

To Be Continued…


What will happen to our intrepid Gallivantrix? Will she end her holiday in a Silent Hill-esque land of small town fog? Will the animatronic policemen turn out to be Autons and come to life in a dramatc tribute to Dr. Who? Will she find a place to sleep??? Will there ever be tulips???? Stay tuned for the next installment of The Long Weekend: Part 2 – Where Nothing Goes According to Plan. The good news is, you know we made it back alive.  😉

 

Chocolate & Lanterns in Seomyeon

Busan is a vibrant city with so much to do. Even on regular weekends it’s easy to go out and find adventure. In the last weekend of April, I set off on a Saturday exploration in a quest for the best chocolate dessert cafe and the local Buddhist temple’s Lantern Festival. I was fortunate to have an adventure buddy for the day to share the experience with, because while I’m happy to travel alone, it’s always better to share with a friend.


Dala 100% Chocolate

Back in the getting to know you stage of my relationship with my co-teacher, we discovered our mutual love of chocolate and she told me the tale of this place. Korea is fraught with dessert cafes. Honestly, there’s at least one on every city block and they serve decadent huge desserts that are definitely meant to be shared, but are still on the XXL size. Despite this, the Korean people are mostly healthy weight to slender as a people. I have no idea what the secret is. Anyway, we’d already done the beautiful strawberry cheesecake sulbing, and then she told me about this chocolate place near my apartment that she had been to with her mother. Unfortunately she couldn’t remember the name! So when I saw a post on FB that showed a giant chocolate dinosaur egg and also linked to the cafe that served it, I quickly realized that was the place.

My next dilemma was to find someone to go with, because I knew there was no way I could possibly go there alone without either feeling like a total pig or wasting half a dessert. I finally convinced my new Busan Bestie and Korea travel companion to accompany me. Truth be told, it didn’t take much convincing as it turns out he likes chocolate just as much as me.

We walked around the neighborhood and managed to wander through a street vendor fair on the way as well where lots of local vendors were selling handmade jewelry and art. Just one more reason to love Busan! One of my favorite things about shopping is supporting local businesses and it’s really great to live in a community that fosters events for them. I’d been to the foreigner’s market, but this one was all Koreans.

12961680_10209615823939095_1335060540656672463_nWhen we found the shop, it was a small space tucked in between yet more small boutique style eateries, but we were saving our appetite for chocolate! We stood outside for a moment admiring the menu and realizing that we would have to come back several times to sample all the amazing goodies on offer. Our timing was also great as we didn’t have to wait at all for a table.

We decided to order some iced chocolate drinks, which turned out to be more like milkshakes. My companion got a choco waffle ball and I got a mocha. We had a choice of white, milk or dark chocolate and happily paid the extra 1$ for dark. Then we ordered the infamous dinosaur egg! We were handed a pager and headed for a table to await our order.

edited_1461993235285The drinks arrived first, giant frosty metal cups with straws and chocolate spoons! My mocha was a perfect blend of coffee and chocolate, and not at all too sweet like mochas can often be. The choco waffle ball came with tiny little chocolate dipped balls of waffle batter sprinkled on top and was likewise a luscious bitter-sweet. Plus, the napkins were printed with the Korean Sign Language alphabet! Too cute! We gushed over the deliciousness for a while, taking some obligatory food photos and then the main event arrived.20160430_134544

The dino egg was nestled in a metal bucket (there is no other word for something that big). The bucket itself was filled with the delicious shaved milk ice then topped with chocolate cookie crumbs and chocolate shavings to create the “dirt” of the dino nest. The kit came with a metal hammer and a small pitcher of chocolate sauce. When I went to crack the egg with the hammer, I misjudged the strength of my blow and accidentally flung a shard of shell to the floor. The shell was made of white chocolate mixed with chocolate cookie crumbs and inside was a scoop of the most rich and decadent chocolate ice cream topped with a tiny chocolate dinosaur!20160430_134641

We drizzled the chocolate sauce into the mix and dug in. I’m not going to say it was the absolute best dessert ever, because in my life I’ve been lucky to experience some very top notch desserts, but this one definitely makes the awesome list. Not only was the presentation super cute, but the flavor was outstanding. Mixing and matching the milk ice, the cookies and chocolate, the chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce provided a different palette in nearly every bite, so I never got used to the flavor. One of the things about flavor is that only the first few bites of a new flavor can trigger the best happiness reaction from your taste buds and limbic system, so a huge piece of chocolate cake (for example) is not actually as good at the end as it is at the beginning. But this dish changed flavor so often we couldn’t get used to it and every bite was as joyful as the first! Plus, we could mix and match with sips of our bittersweet milkshakes.

In retrospect, we probably could have split a single milkshake. It took us about 90 minutes to get to the bottom of the bowl, by which time we were left with a creamy cold soup that we decided to divvy up into the remainder of our shakes to drink. Heaven! It made our already delicious chocolate drinks even creamier. There was a Korean couple who came in slightly after us and managed to devour their egg in far less time. I have no idea where they put it.

With our tummies full and our mouths happy, we headed back into the street to find our way to the afternoon adventure that would hopefully help us walk off some of the decadence we’d just spent the last 2 hours stuffing our faces with. After a longer linger at the street festival, we made our way to the bus stop that would lead us to the Samgwangsa Temple for the Buddha’s Birthday party.

Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival

I’m becoming convinced that FB groups may be the best way to learn about stuff to do in a city. I’ve now made a habit of joining them where I live, but I’m starting to think it could be a good idea for a month or two preceding an international vacation so you can hear from the expats who live there what’s going on. While randomly scrolling through my feed, I see someone has asked if the lanterns are up at Samgwangsa, and someone else replied that they were. This wasn’t even an ad, these people obviously knew something I didn’t. I promptly headed over to my other favorite internet resource, Google. Here I learned that the Samgwangsa Temple in Busan is one that is dedicated in the main to the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, known as 관음 or 관세음 in Korean, she is the Bodhisattva of Compassion or Mercy and is very popular in Mahayana Buddhism. The temple itself was only constructed in 1983. There aren’t too many ancient buildings in Korea because so much of the country was destroyed during the war. However, the architecture mimics the classical Chinese style and it’s quite pretty as well as being an active place of worship.

* Despite the fact that I studied Buddhism at grad school (and personally find a lot to identify with in Theravadan Buddhism), I was rather aghast to discover that my education was sadly lacking in Korean schools of Buddhism. I’d read plenty about India, China and Japan, but I couldn’t remember anything about Korea. I went on a short online quest and found that there isn’t that much consumer ready info out there, so if anyone knows some good research material on Buddhism in Korea, please let me know.

The Buddhist calendar is lunar, so the holidays move around in comparison with our solar calendar, and the Buddha’s birthday falls on May 14th this year. Rather the same way that Christmas is celebrated for some weeks before December 25th in many places, Buddha’s birthday is marked with several weeks of lantern festivals in Korea. Samgwangsa is far from the only one, not even the only one in Busan, but online pictures promised a level of lantern frivolity that I simply could not pass up. We knew we wanted to be out of town the first weekend in May because of the long weekend, and that the weekend of the 14th was likely to be over-crowded, so we decided to go right away to make sure we got to see the lanterns in peace.

20160430_170926After our chocolate overdose, we took the bus out to Mt. Baekyangsan. This sounds like it should be a long way away, but Busan is not just surrounded by mountains, it’s closely set about with them and even occasionally interrupted by them, so in reality it was only about 15-20 minutes from our chocolate place in downtown Seomyeon. That’s less than half the time it takes me to get to the beach. We had to walk a bit on some winding roads, and it was stunning to see how much the culture changed in such a short bus ride from the city center to it’s edge. Things went from being tall, modern skyscrapers with brand name shops and English ads to being small tile roofed buildings and local shopkeepers selling traditional clothes and foods. The path to the temple was clearly marked, and soon we began to see lanterns leading the way as well.

20160430_171326Much like the temples in China, there was a large, odd shaped rock set out front with the name of the temple in Chinese characters (白楊山三光寺 – bai yang shan san guang si, which roughly translated as “poplar mountain heavenly Temple” and you can clearly see the “san guang si” became the Korean “sam gwang sa”). There was also a long stairwell with a numerically significant 108 steps. The stairs were lined with lanterns, flowers and statues of various sages famous in the history of the sect, although please don’t ask me to identify them because it can be more complicated than spot the Catholic Saint. We got our first glimpses of the lantern coated buildings from the stairs and began to get giddy at the thought of being surrounded by so many beautiful colored lights!

20160430_173248

The Samgwangsa Temple did not stint in it’s celebrations. Everywhere a lantern could be hung it was. We walked into open air halls that dripped lanterns from the ceiling. The sides of buildings were lined with lanterns. The air between buildings had strings of lanterns. The pathway from the top of the mountain back down to the main temple was covered in lanterns to resemble the scales of some mighty serpent switch-backing down the hillside. Every lantern was numbered and many already had prayer papers attached to them in little weatherproof plastic baggies. In the plaza underneath the largest contiguous spread of lanterns, there were tables set up all around to let visitors donate in order to add their prayer papers to a lantern somewhere in the Temple.

20160430_172917We traipsed around the temple grounds in awe, randomly bursting into the final song from “Tangled”. At one point we accidentally wandered into the nun’s living quarters, although it wasn’t closed off it was still a bit embarrassing to find them just cooking dinner. There was a sign for the bathroom, which I’d seen before I realized where we were, and they were kind enough to show us to the facilities.

We circled around the standing pagoda and then found the entrance to the main hall of worship. I’ve had the good fortune to be inside some truly stunning temples, and this one was doing it’s best to compete, despite it’s youth. I don’t have any pictures from the inside out of respect, but the walls and ceiling were covered in carved and painted figures, dragons, birds, Bodhisattva’s and sages. The detail was incredible and we sat for a while on the provided cushions in appreciation and meditation. The altars beneath the figures were laden with fruit, flowers and rice, and the back wall was stacked with sacks and sacks of donated rice for the residents. On our way back outside, I finally realized what seemed to be missing from the temple – incense! Every other Buddhist temple I can think of was constantly burning fragrant offerings in giant censors set out for the pilgrims to use, filling the air with sandalwood and other earthy spices. This temple had none. I’d seen one of the giant burners, but there was no incense in it and no fragrance in the air.

20160430_182057

We walked around the terraces and balconies taking pictures of the opposing hillside where more strings and patterns of lanterns had been set up in a star shape and the “Buddhist Cross” (no its not a swastika, I promise). We bought some souvenirs at the temple gift shop and gawped at the giant lanterns of dragons and zodiac animals. In need of a snack, we headed off to one side where some vendors had set up near some picnic tables and bought something random on a stick after being reassured that it was “mashisoyo” (delicious). It was. It was some kind of seafood concoction with mustard and ketchup which should have ruined it, but somehow did not. My companion also bought a souvenir lotus lantern to carry around once the sun set.

It didn’t take much to fill our bellies, and we headed up the last peak to see the white lanterns and the top of the winding pathway. From this vantage point we watched the sun set over the temple and the city spreading out below us. It was such a magical blending of the natural and the urban, the sacred and the secular. Busan is an amazing place.

20160430_172033

Once the sun was down, we began the second half of our exploration, the lanterns by night. We walked down the belly of the dragon as we descended the mountain back into the main temple complex. Our walk was accompanied by some traditional music that the monks and nuns were performing in front of the main temple room and we were serenaded with chanting and drumming that echoed through the mountains around us.20160430_195457

Once we descended into the main complex again, we found everything we’d seen before renewed by lantern and LED lights. Giant holy symbols lit up the plaza, prayer candles adorned the pagoda base, a wall of lanterns surrounded the pagoda along the mountainside and every single one of the lanterns we’d passed before now glowed. The pure white lanterns created the brightness of daylight for anyone underneath them, and the other colors just made us feel like we were floating inside a rainbow. We retraced our steps, dancing and singing and taking more selfies than is really healthy for anyone. We made it back down to the zodiac and dragon lanterns which I have only ever seen the like of at the Dubai Global Village Lantern display, and that’s *Dubai* where everything is huge and over the top.20160430_205646_Richtone(HDR)

Finally, we headed back to the area where we’d gotten our snacks so we could see the beautifully lighted mountain path. We were too tired to walk all the way up, but the view of the temple complex from the other side was amazing. I’ve never been able to visit a temple during a festival like this before and here was one practically in my own backyard! I talked to some of the expats who’ve been here longer and they seemed rather blasé about going again since they’d been last year. I can only say I hope that I never get tired of seeing such colorful splendor. I don’t have the best night camera capability, but please check out the full album on my Facebook page to see the glorificence.


Stay tuned for the Long Weekend adventures to Namhae Island and Taean Tulip Festival! Korea is so full of amazing stuff and yet I feel like  it gets very little press or tourism from the West in comparison with Japan. I hope my stories shine some light on the goodies this country has to offer and maybe encourage some of you to get out and see some of them. As always, thanks for reading and enjoy the pictures! 🙂