Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

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It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

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When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

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When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

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I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

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After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

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On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
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It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

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After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

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The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

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Autumn at the DMZ

As the weather cools down, so begins the annual reddening of the leaves. Busan is a very warm part of Korea and our trees were still mostly green going into November, so my other two musketeers and I joined the Enjoy Korea group once more to head to the northernmost regions of South Korea, known best for the Demilitarized Zone and the most beautiful Fall Foliage. It seemed like an odd conjunction of activities: the DMZ and a temple in a mountainous national park, but when you live at the southern tip of the peninsula it pays to combine the northern activities.


A little history151339-004-68fcf709

I hope that most of my readers are aware at least in outline of the Korean War and the resultant division of North and South Korea. For those who would like a refresher, here’s a very brief recap:

Japan had been controlling Korea for a while, but was forced to give it back at the end of WWII. Unfortunately, the Allies couldn’t agree on who would replace Japan as the dominant colonial power, so a line was drawn at the 38th parallel and Russia got the North while America got the South. Yeah, they sort of had thier own governments, but it was heavily infulenced by communist and capitalist ideas (and money). In 1950, the North swept over the border in huge numbers and descimated the South… flattened… destroyed and took over nearly everything in only a few days. A few DAYS. The UN decided to get involved and America sent the majority of troops into a war no one was prepared for. It dragged on for 3 years (which seems so fast and efficient nowadays, right?) and finally the Northern armies were pushed back behind the 38th. The DMZ was established as a boundary between North and South to protect  the South from further surprise attacks and it is heavily guarded at all times.

The DMZ

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Our group was not heading to the Joint Security Area (JSA) where official government buildings and occasional meetings between the two countries exist, but rather to a less well developed part of the border that was only recently opened to the public. It’s one of the least developed areas in South Korea; apparently sometimes there are even deer. The Korean Board of Tourism refers to the area of Yanggu as “the natural side of the DMZ

It was a long drive from Busan all the way to Yanggu. We left at 5 o’clock in the morning, but I did manage to get to bed early the night before so it wasn’t too bad. When we arrived in Yanggu, we first stopped off in town for a late breakfast. It was surreal walking through a town so close to the Northern border. There were far more military personel around than in other Korean cities, and it seemed somehow more subdued, although there were still cute street decorations and a wide variety of bakeries and cafes to choose from. We had some delicious waffles made with a Belgian style resting dough recipe.

20161022_123119.jpgAfter eating and stretching our legs, the buses moved on to Dutayeon. The area of Dutayeon is beyond the Civilian Control Line, was closed to civilians after the Korean War and was only recently reopened to the public in 2006. It’s still necessary for us to register ahead of time with the government in order to visit the area, and for some of our group to wear GPS tracking necklaces around while in the park. Of course I volunteered to wear one for our group. Are you kidding? The Dutayeon Park area also includes the warning: “Not all landmines have been found, so stay within the permitted areas.” It’s not your average hike in the woods.

20161022_123713That being said, it is a beautiful area. The river that runs through it ends in a small but powerful waterfall that is the crown jewel of the park, visible across from the pond and from viewing platforms on both sides. There is a loop trail around the park, so it doesn’t matter which way you go from the pond. We headed right and passed by quite a large number of unexploded mine signs on our way toward an outdoor exhibit of mines used in the war, 20161022_125524.jpgas well as other security measures and a mock explosion that demonstrated the sensitivity of the mines by blowing foam bits around in a ball while playing a low volume explosion sound whenever hikers came too close. There were also many happier decorations including party banners between trees, wooden deer and pigs, and a whole wall of paper prayers and wishes.

As the path veered toward the river, we came to a suspension bridge which the Koreans took great delight in bouncing and swaying on as we crossed. Our group of westerners was several hundred from all over Korea, and there were many more busloads of Korean tourists visiting the park that day as well. I know that normally you can get away from the crowds here by taking a side trail or going to a less popular part of the park/beach/etc. However, given the security issues at the DMZ, it simply wasn’t an option. The good news is that everyone was polite and took turns at all the best photo spots.

20161022_132835After crossing the brigde, we followed more winding forest paths through beautiful red trees. We climbed up some stairs to get to a viewing platform just above the falls and then continued on further upriver. When it came time to cross again, there was no bridge, but instead a trail of stones that required us to hop across. Most stones were large enough to allow two people at a time, but not all. Some stones could be easily stepped between and others required jumping. Plus, everyone wanted to stop in midstream for a geourgous photo-op. The end result was a long and patient crossing while trying not to get bumped into the water by people crossing the other way. This was mostly acheivable, except for when the Ajuma needed to pass. These are the ladies who wait for no one and push everyone aside to pass. Behavior that is just rude and annoying on the subway suddenly becomes hazardous when trying to balance on river rocks. Oh, Korea.

20161022_134358.jpgBack on the near bank, we followed the trail up to a gazebo/pagoda hybrid that overlooked the waterfall once more, before following a side trail up and over to a sculpure garden that included various works of outdoor art inspired by the war or the peace as well, as a missile and several tanks that were leftovers from the fighting. One of the most fascinating pieces was a painted sculpture that blended 2d and 3d art. The sculpture was the bust of a young woman, but only half of it was painted realistically, the other half had been painted blue. In addition, the depth was unrealisitc as well. The combination created an illusion of a different perspective of portrait from each angle as you walk around it. There was also a kitchy photo frame where we took a group shot, and a copse of giant eyeballs which was meant to show the sourse of all the tears shed for those lost. There were art pieces made from the objects of war, such as the barbed wire dandilion, and other shapes made from reforged metal. All in all, it was a surreal yet emotional tribute to the history and tragedy.

20161022_151349.jpgFrom the park, we wended our way over to a small war memorial. Mostly we stopped here because it was necessary to file more paperwork for the Eulji Observatory. The memorial was very artistic and very sad. There were nine pillars representing the nine big battlefields in the area (Dolosan, Daeusan, Bloody Ridge, Baekseoksan Mountain, Punch Bowl, Gachilbong, Danjang Ridge, 949 Hill, and Christmas Hill), as well as statues of soldiers, displays of weapons and a whole room the floor of which was covered in shell casings from the war. Growing amid the barbed wire and destruction were small and beautiful flowers. There was a poem there ending in the stanza:

The Land of Guardians

A leaf of grass, a flower, don’t look at them as usual

And please don’t forget

Freedom today is stained with blood

Tears of sublime sacrifice underneath the smiling Peace.

When you pass by Yangu, the land of myth,

Stop at the sight of flowers red as blood,

Regard them as souls bloomed,

And please take your hats off, brooding awhile

Slowing down your busy pace.

20161022_151414.jpgWhile reading these lines, I stood over the discarded shell casings, and under the helmets of dead soldiers, my camera filled with photos of beautiful flowers growing around the site. Although small and far less grand than the UN Memorial in Busan, the closeness of things these men had touched or died in amid the natural beauty of wildflowers and creeping red ivy brought the tragedy of war far closer to my heart than a cemetery or a statue ever could.

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(I don’t have many photos from the day, but thankfully, the South Korean board of tourism has published a few from the area that show the Northern side and interior of the Observatory so you can see them, too.)

The drive up to Eulji Observatory was interesting because for large parts of the ride, we rode with the border fence directly to our right, staring though it toward North Korea, which looked bleak and empty compared to the Southern side of the border. The day had been partly cloudy but with decent sunshine and fluffy white clouds, but as we drove up the mountain, it became gray and misty. Perhpas it was just the elevation, but it did give an aura of doom, gloom and Mordor to our encounter with the border of violent and secretive North Korea. Armed soldiers came on to the bus several times to count us. The Americans were notably less disturbed by the sight of military weapons close up and it was easy to tell which expats were from countries where such things are still uncommon. We were told that photos at the observatory were somewhat tricky, since we were allowed to photograph South Korea and the outside of the observatory, but *not* North Korea or anything inside the Observatory.

Several people tried to take photos of a memorial pillar against the fence, but even though the fence was blacked out, they were asked to delete the photos. The Korean soldiers guarding the area were very polite and respectful, but did ask to see phones if they spotted anyone pointing a phone toward the Northern side. I put my phone in my pocket and went up to the fence to peer through the cracks and get a glimpse of the forbidden North. The mountains and valleys beyond were bereft of signs of human occupation. Behind me on the South Korean side lay the famous Punch Bowl, once a bloody battlefield and now a well developed agricultural area, the land divided into neat geometric shapes for crop management and dotted with low wide buildings. In front of me, through the narrow slat where the tarp covered wire fence met the concrete base, 771892_image2_1I could see one winding dirt road, some tires stacked and filled with dirt or sand to create a barrier, and a lone watchtower surrounded by more barbed wire fencing. Beyond these decrepit signs of occupation, the land seemed as wild and untouched as though looking back in time to before humans even arrived. Coming from South Korea, where all the land is so thoroughly occupied that wildlife is all but vanished, it was a stunning contrast.

96b48f615a34f9c1cd756f6173624324Inside the observatory, there is an enclosed viewing platform that overlooks the North. A brave soldier who spoke some English decided to read an English presentation to our large group. He was very nervous, but it was a great gesture that he wanted to share information with us, so we filled the small auditorium and listened politiely while staring at the mist shrouded emptiness behind him. He told us about famous battle sites around the observatory including Stalin Hill, where the South lost some land that is now part of North Korea, a radio tower used to block signals traveling into the North, and a distant waterfall called Fairy Waterfall where beautiful North Korean women used to bathe nude to entice South Korean soldiers. He also indicated that North Koreans did use the area nearby for agriculture, although to my eyes it looked completely natural and I cannot imagine that the food they harvested there would be anything more than wild gathering.

20161022_161530.jpgI stepped back outside, feeling disoriented from the whole experience, looking back and forth across the narrow fence from a high vantange point where I could easily see North and South at the same time. (hint, the South is on the right, the North is on the left) Large ravens swooped around the peak, effortlessly gliding between the two countries gripped in cold war, alighting on the Northern watchtower, then returning to our parking lot to scavenge for crumbs left by tourists.

4th tunnel

20161022_172650.jpgOur last stop for the DMZ day was the 4th Tunnel. This sounds fairly ominous, because it also implies there are at least 3 other tunnels, which there are. The North has tried on at least 4 occasions to literally tunnel into South Korea to get troops behind the border for a massive attack. Before heading over to the tunnel entrance, we scooted inside the nearby museum for a quick propaganda film. The film was in Korean, but had English subtitiles. They were long, small and hard to read over the video, as well as not being the most accurate gramatically, but I got the gist: North bad, South good, Threat onging. The idea that the Korean War is over is not something that really exists up near the border. To be honest, it doesn’t really exist in Korea at all, but most of the time Korean citizens can ignore their war with the North the same way Americans don’t let the 7 wars their country is involved in affect them on a daily basis. This film was a little startling however, because it didn’t even make an attempt at looking like an “unbiased documentary” and was more in a tone in keeping with propaganda material from the 1950s-60s during the cold war with Russia, or the modern Chinese government propaganda films. I’m not sure how old the film was, but it certainly felt out of time.

20161022_175636After the film, we filed into a large round tunnel. The tunnel we were walking into was dug with a serious drill by the South Koreans in order to reach the less sophisticated North Korean tunnel. It was a long walk, less than 1km I’m sure, but the tunnel was dim and damp and nearly perfectly circular thanks to the diamond tipped drill the Koreans had used to make it. Hard hats were available at the front, but there were nowhere near enough to accomodate our group size, so we simply left them behind. Inside the tunnel was another no photos zone. Fortunately, the internet provides, so you can see some photos that other people (including authorized tour guides) have taken of the tunnel and equipment.

As we stood in line in the dank underground tube watching water drizzle down through a crack in the rock above, someone in the queue pointed out how much like waiting in line at Disney Land’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride it felt. I couldn’t disagree; it was underground, dark, dripping water, although the armed soldiers were real instead of animatronic pirates. In a moment I can only blame on the sheer absurity of our situation, we decided as a group that the experience would hereafter be known as DMZney Land, where the atrocities of war are wrapped up in neat little display packets for visitors to line up and experience by the busload.

20161022_175114Where the modern and sleek South Korean tunnel ended, there were clear toolmarks in the rock, concentric circles left by the drill. Intersecting our tunnel was a much smaller one, no more than 2 sqare meteres, and rough hewn, carved out with picks and dynamite. A small train awaited us, one seat behind the next as the tunnel was too narrow for two abreast. The seats were low and a transparent panel protected us from the threat of falling rocks above, but the sides remained open. We climbed in, feeling even more like boarding a ride in a theme park, expecting a trek through the rugged rock. After a mere 100 meters, the train came to a stop. We could see tool marks, and holes that had been prepared for the next round of dynamite. I forgot for a moment about the photo ban, but when I snapped a few, the soldiers only politely reminded me not to and I put my phone away again.

After a few minutes, the train moved us backward along the rail to our point of embarkation. I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I asked one of our guides to find out why the trip had been so short. Once the next trainful of tourists was on its way, she was able to ask the guard there more about the tunnel and the train. It turns out the reason we stopped is because we had gone right up to the border underground. I don’t think it was actually the border of North Korea, I think it was more likely the border of the non-civillian section of the DMZ, but it was still chilling to realize how close we’d come, or rather, how close the North had come to succeeding in their infiltration plan.

Outside the tunnel is a memorial statue to a military dog named Hunt who died while helping to rid the area of landmines. The tunnel was only discovered in 1990, and although North Korea claims it was for coal mining, there is no sign of any coal in the granite through which the tunnel was dug. American and South Korean forces are maintaining a look out for possible 5th or even 6th tunnels to this day.

Hotel in Sokcho

By the time we emerged from the tunnel, the sun had set, and the mountains were wreathed in the last glimmer of twilight. We boarded our buses in the dark and headed over to our hotels for the night. The only real reason this is of any blogworthy interest is because our hotel had both indoor and outdoor spas and pools. My experience at the jimjilbang in Jeju was great, but highly segregated. Here, we got the chance to sit around in our swimsuits in mixed company with some cans of beer and feel the contrast of the warm spa water and the cold mountain night air. The whole experience started like a jimjilbang, and we had to clean off in the showers before heading outside. The pools closest to the door were cooler, and by the time we got all the way to the upper levels and warmest pools, I was shivering intensely, but it was worth it to enjoy the wonderful outdoor spa.

I try not to dwell on the sleeping arrangements for these trips, because we go in for economy. This time we ended up on the floor again, and I gather no one slept terribly well, all of us relying on our excitement of travel to keep us going one more day.

Seoraksan

Early in the morning, after a buffet breakfast, we headed out to the famous national park for some hiking and autumn leaf viewing. The weather was still rather damp, but that just made the colors of the trees and rocks around us stand out more. Seoraksan is quite famous among Koreans for it’s natural beauty, it’s giant bronze Buddha, and it’s fall foliage. Even wih the drizzly weather, the park was still packed to the gills when we arrived. I’m so used to hiking in the woods being a quiet escape from humanity, so this was a very big contrast. Even when climbing the famous Mt. Hua and Mt. Tai in China, I didn’t feel this crowded.
20161023_153116The parking lot had more tour buses than Disney Land, and when we passed through the main entrance, we were greeted with a wide stone road lined with restaurants, cafes and other businesses catering to park-goers. There are several trails that can take over 12 hours, but we didn’t have that much time. After doing some research, my companions and I decided we would see the big Buddha, then walk the short (2 hr) waterfall trail, and finally take the cable car up to the highest peak for  a look around.

Our very first task was to buy cable car tickets, since the tickets are sold by time and sell out early in the day. In fact, even though we;d decided to do the cable car last, nearly all the tickets before 1pm were already sold out by the time we found the ticket office. I gather that most of the year the cars run every 15 minutes, but during the weekend we were there, they had cars running every 5, holding 50 people each, and all of them were sold out by the end of the day. That’s 600 people an hour or about 4,000 people in a single day. And that’s just for the cable car. I really have no idea how many were in the park, but when I say it was full, I’m not joking.

20161023_102755.jpgOur tickets in had, we followed the signs toward the temple, passing more and more restaurants, cafes and other buildings of unknown purpose. We rounded a corner and spotted the giant statue from a distance and made a bee line straight for it. The first thing that struck me was how similar it was to the Buddha at Kamakura I’d seen last year (and totally forgot to write about but follow the link for pics). Both large metal stautes had hidden entrances as well. We took our photos and wandered around the area, watching as other visitors engaged in prayer or selfies or some combination of the two. For me, visiting famous temples is more often an act of tourism even though I call call myself a Buddhist. I imagine it’s the same way that many Christians visit Notre Dame or other famous churches to appreciate the art and history rather than to attend service. I did take a moment to find my center and become mindful of my experience, and my friend made a votive candle offering as well, so we weren’t total gawkers.

The Sinheungsa Temple was burned down in 699 and rebuilt in 710, and many believe it to be the oldest standing Seon (Zen / Chan) Temple in the world. The statue (built in 1992) is 16.9m tall (not counting the nimbus around/above his head) and contains within some pieces of the Buddha’s sari recovered after cremation, and a copy of the Tripitika (the Buddhist “bible”). The Kamakura Buddha is a bit shorter at only 13.5m, but much older, having been around since 1252, and represents a different branch of Buddhism, being a statue of Amida Buddha from the Pure Land sect, while the Seoraksan Buddha or Tongil Daebul (Great Unification Buddha) is from the Seon school and represents the sincere desire for Korean reunification.

Biryong Falls Course

41918_43827_1347Trying to keep ourselves on a decent timeline, we said our farewells to the stunning statue and set off in search of the trail-head to Biryong Falls. We soon joined a stream of Koreans dressed to the nines in their special hiking clothes. For many Koreans, espeically the older ones, outdoor activities are a serious glamour show. All the clothes are brightly colored and brand new looking. Meanwhile, my friends and I were dressed in jeans and hoodies because that’s usually how we walk in the woods at home.

20161023_104649.jpgThe path involved some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Unlike the Busan mountains which are low and covered in a softening green layer of trees, the Seoraksan mountains burst from the treeline with jagged teeth of bare rock, and this day, the whole thing was wreathed in clouds and mist making it even more haunting. We took a wide bridge over a river and ambled joyfully along the forest path, stopping to admire the trees on a regular basis. The Koreans around us took some pictures, but only at designated picturesque spots. The rest of the time they were in a hurry to get moving. So much of a hurry that we were jostled, bumped and even shoved if we were deemed to not be going fast enough. It was like being in the subway… for several km.  We tried to walk on the side of the path, or even just step OFF the path when the hordes of ajuma came barrelling down on us, but it didn’t always work.

Eventually the trail thinned out and it became harder to get out of the way. The ground left soil behind and became a wet and slippery ascent of natural stones that were precarious and challenging to hike up. The Koreans all had special hiking shoes and one or two walking poles apiece for balance and had zero patience with us for hiking in only trainers and not having sticks to balance with. More than once, I was worried that one of the shovers was going to knock me down or even knock me off the edge! It was a big contrast to the DMZ park where everyone had been patient and taken turns on the river rocks. At one point I moved as far off the path as was safe to stop and take my coat off. I got bumped into by people coming from behind 4 times. More than once they looked at me as though it were my fault for not getting out of the way. Heaven forfend we should want to stop on a bridge to admire the view or take a photo. There’s nothing so nerve wracking as having ajuma shove you while you’re balanced on a thin rail of metal over a pounding white water river below.

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However, despite the nerve jangling crowds, the hike was absolutely stunning. There were still quite a few trees dressed in green, but that only served as a better backdrop for the fiery reds and golds that permeated the woods. 20161023_121430.jpgAs our path ascended beside the river, we were treated to the kind of views normally reserved for high class calendars and natural beauty screen savers. My computer randomly shows me stunning nature pics every time I log in, and I swear that one of them was actually from Seoraksan. We climbed up the slippery rocks, clinging to the railing and nearby trees until we reached two more bridges crossing the lower Yukdam Falls. The maps and pamphlets all say it’s just a 40 minute hike from the main entrance to these falls, but it had taken us close to 90, proving that 40 minutes was measured by ajuma walking standards rather than beautiful day in the woods standards. I understand that Biryong Falls was only a little farther up the mountain, but in order to make our cable car time, we had to turn back early.

Cable Car & Tiny Temple

20161023_140905Our last adventure for the day was to take the cable car up to Gwongeumseong. This particular peak is only accesible by cable car and can’t be hiked up to. We’d gotten our tickets as soon as we arrived at the park, so all we had to do was wait for the sign to show our boarding time and file on. These are decently large cable cars, and hold 50 passengers at a go, all standing and no personal space. My friend decided to play elbows for us and wrangled some spaces right along the rear window so we could watch the ground disappearing beneath us as we ascended into the clouds. We were able to see the main park entrance laid out below us, including the giant Buddha off to one side.

img_2155As we rose, the clouds soon fell below us, covering the view of the ground and the sea became visible off to one side. I had known Seoraksan was near the coast, but I had not realized how close to the ocean we actually were until that moment. The cable car stand at the top had more amenities, food and restrooms and coffee shops, but we swept past them and onto the viewing platform. I had read ahead of time that one could walk all the way to the tippy top from here and see an old castle, but after my experience on the waterfall path earlier, I was reticent to follow another stream of hundreds of hikers. We walked around the viewing area and found a distant waterfall, a long streak of white amid the green and brown of the mountains, visible even at this distance it must have been enormous up close.

20161023_145139.jpgWhile searching for more and better angles to take majestic photos of the panorama around us, we stumbled upon a small path leading downward that no one else was on. The small sign indicated there was a temple (templ-ette? I’m not honestly sure how to translate this word in English) about 70m downward. We carefully balanced on uneven, wet and slippery rocks, clinging at times to the chain along one side of the path. 70m isn’t far on flat ground, but it took us a while to cover it on the mountainside. We also stopped to admire the views often. When the path leveled out, we were greeted with a tiny hut, decorated in Buddhist style. We doffed our shoes and went inside. The warm interior was a welcome contrast to the chilly outside air. The ceiling was covered with lotus lanterns and small candles burned on the altar. The air was so still, I had to stare at the candles for a few minutes before I decided they were flame and not electric.

Our whole day had been so hectic and crowded, it was bliss to sit on the plush carpet and just enjoy the calming music playing on the sound system. While we were meditating, the monk came back inside and seemed a bit surprised to see us there. I don’t know if I want to go too far into what I experienced internally, but I definitely received the answer to a question that had been bothering me. My friend also found some answers in her meditation that helped her to find her way again after some troubling times. Buddha isn’t a god, he doesn’t answer prayers or give us things, but quiet reflection is hard to come by and can make a space for us to hear the answers we already knew. This temple, however small and remote, had a sense of peace and purpose. Even it’s name reflected this, translating in English as the “love and happiness temple”.

When I stood to offer a respectful bow to the altar, the priest caught my eye as I straightened up and smiled broadly, bowing to me and greeting me in Korean. My friend was still meditating, so we were quiet and did not speak much beyond greetings, but I could tell he was happy that we had come in with intent and respect.

Once both of us completed our meditations, we headed back up to the cable car feeling cleansed and refreshed. Some other expat tourists asked us what was down the path and I told them. Then they asked if it was “worth it” and we had a small discussion on what that meant. The temple-ette was tiny and not very architecturally or artistically stunning, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally, the peace we found there was priceless to us.

As the fall moves on, I treasure the memory of this temple most from the weekend experience. Things are not getting calmer or easier for me as an American or for everyone living in Korea dealing with the political uncertainty here. Religion and spirituality are tricky topics, and I’m not out to preach or convert, but the core Buddhist tenant of loving-kindness is something I think we can all use a little more of in our lives.

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I met with some other Americans after the election and someone reminded me that one of the most important roles of the expat is “soft diplomacy”. We go out and show the face of the people, instead of the government, and when we come back, we can tell stories of the people and places we’ve seen, sharing things the news and the movies miss out on. I hope that my travels, stories and experiences can serve to help show the value in diversity, in natural preservation, and in open-mindedness. Thanks for reading, and please be sure to see all the photos from the DMZ and Seoraksan over on Facebook! ❤

 

Chuseok in Jeju: Part I

Just two weeks after returning from the southern hemisphere and still trying frantically to write all my adventures in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to visit one of my South Korea bucket list destinations: Jeju Island. Even though October is nearly over as I publish this, the story itself takes place back in early September. Korea is just so darn full of adventure that I often don’t have the time to sit down to write, polish, and publish between each one. Don’t be jealous, just come to Korea for your next holiday and enjoy it all for yourself!


Chuseok 추석

Chuseok is a Korean holiday. Some people say it is like Thanksgiving, and I thought that seemed inaccurate. I always thought Thanksgiving arose in the US out of our near starvation in the New World because we couldn’t grow anything there. The Natives saved our butts and we later repaid them by nearly wiping them all out and confining the survivors to the worst land in the continent. Then I read the Wikipedia article and learned about the strange Puritan fasting holidays, Guy Fawkes, and Martin Frobisher. Let’s just say we’re better off removing the comparison between Chuseok and Thanksgiving altogether.
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It is a harvest festival, however, so there’s lots food around. It’s also a time when Korean families honor their ancestors and clean the graves. For weeks before Chuseok, the stores were filled with gift boxes. Common items were apples, fish and SPAM. I saw boxes of 9 apples sell for 130,000 krw (that’s $113 US) and one box of fish for 1,500,000 krw (just over $1,300 US)! I asked my co-teachers why these boxes were so expensive and they told me that it was important to offer the very best of the harvest to the ancestors during the ritual. In addition, certain foods, like the special fish, were not common anymore but could not be replaced or substituted if one wanted to perform the ritual correctly. It seemed exploitative to me, but at least it made some sense. What about the expensive boxes of SPAM? 20160902_173151They told me that’s the normal price for SPAM, it was just in gift boxes this time of year. This led to a whole side discussion about the cultural dissemination of SPAM, it’s various levels of value from trailer trash food on up to gift box delicacy, the etymology of the current spam email concept, and my discovery that South Korea out consumes everyone else except the US in SPAM purchasing (which is staggering considering the population difference). And if you’re not singing the Monty Python SPAM song in your head by now, it’s only because you’ve never seen it.

Getting There

Needless to say, this very important holiday entails several days off work. Since I and most of the other expats here have no family or ancestors in Korea, we are free to take this time to travel and relax. With 5 days out of the classroom, it seemed like the perfect chance to explore Jeju. All summer long, any time I mentioned I was going to Jeju for Chuseok, Korean people would go wide eyed with worry and ask, as though inquiring the health of a sick pet, “did you make all your bookings yet?”. In this way, and perhaps this way alone, it is like Thanksgiving: the dreaded Travel Blackout. Lucky for me, Enjoy Korea made all their arrangements well in advance, and I snatched up the last two seats on the Busan bus way back in June. The price tag seemed unbeatable. The trip included all our transportation, not just to and from Jeju, but around the island to various sightseeing highlights, our accommodation (breakfast buffet included), and the entrance fee to the various attractions we were scheduled to see for around $370USD.

20160914_073107.jpgThe only real hitch was that we were taking the ferry from Mokpo instead of a plane. This meant a 4+ hour bus ride and a 4+ hour ferry ride, plus all the time in the ferry terminal on either end… we had close to 12 hours from when we left Busan at 3am Wednesday morning to when we arrived at the hotel in Jeju Wednesday afternoon. I dozed on the bus and slept better on the ferry where we could actually lay down. After checking in, the tour bus drove us up to nearby  Hyupjae beach. I’m not sure if everything was closed because it was Chuseok or because it was 4 in the afternoon, but we were greeted with lots of interesting looking restaurants that were shuttered and dark. Finally we found a Tonkatsu place where I confused the heck out of the staff by ordering in Korean instead of English. We had a little view of the sea from our table and the food was tasty enough for me, since I hadn’t eaten anything but cookies and a latte all day.

hyeopjae-beachAfter we ate, we headed down to the water to frolic! The weather was gray, but warm. At first the water seemed chilly, but as I waded in further, I quickly adjusted. This beach was wide and shallow. We walked out for ages from the shore but the water didn’t even come to our hips. There were some Koreans playing in the water as well, but it seemed that only the Westerners wore swimsuits, everyone else went in the water in clothes. I’ve seen this at the beaches in Busan as well, and I’m still not sure what the cultural aversion to swimwear in the ocean is.

When we noticed all the expats leaving the beach, we came inland and rushed back to the buses. It became obvious we were the only ones to have taken a dip and our bus driver gave us an enthusiastic double thumbs up when he saw us come in dripping with our towels wrapped around us and our bare feet caked with sand.

After a quick rinse off in the room, we got down to the poolside in time for a beautifully colored sunset. We finished off our first night in Jeju with a pitcher and some nice conversation by the pool before collapsing into actual beds (instead of the floor mats I had anticipated).

Waterfalls with a Side of Disappointment

Breakfast was served starting at 7:30 each morning for 2 hours. I was fearing/expecting a sad continential breakfast of weak coffee and dry pastries, but it turned out to be a long buffet table with Korean and Western foods both hot and cold. The coffee was still weak, but there was a tiny cafe in the lobby, so I figured I could buy a cup after eating. I got in line for the coffee well before bus departure time, but sadly, never made it to the front, so my very full day of waterfalls and museums would have to be done sans caffeine.

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Our first stop that day was Cheonjiyeon where we would walk through the woods and see the most beautiful waterfall on Jeju. Heavens help me, I’m writing the segment about waterfalls from New Zealand elsewhere at this moment and it’s just not a fair comparison. One must take one’s waterfalls each as special and unique without trying to measure any one up. My decision to visit Jeju in September was motivated by the Chuseok special, but also by the idea that September temperatures should be back in the tolerable range. Two small problems with that. One, this was the hottest summer anyone remembers in Korea for a long while, temperatures in Busan regularly went over 30 and reached 35 several days while I was away in the wintery southern hemisphere. This is compared to the highs in previous weather data being something like 28. Second, I failed entirely to account for exactly how much worse humidity makes everything. Weather that says 24 on the thermometer, suddenly feels like 29. Everything in your body swells with fluid retention and it seriously feels like someone’s sucked all the oxygen out of the air. For a while, I was worried this was just me. I knew from my recent trip to New Zealand that I wasn’t just “out of shape”, and that my exhaustion and fatigue in Korea had to be something else. During this holiday, I heard from many other expats (several in as good or better shape than me) how tired they were, how hard the hikes were and other physical complaints. The combination of heat, humidity and low pressure (typhoons a comin’) made many of us feel uncharacteristically bad.

When we arrived at the park, we had limited information on what there was to see along the trails, and I didn’t want to miss this “best waterfall”. We decided to walk straight to the farthest point and then work our way back in so we didn’t end up far away from the parking lot without time to get back to the bus. We chose this because the maps made it look like there was only one access to the parking lot, at the main entrance… this turns out not to be true.. I also failed in doing my pre-research because I was just relying on the tour group to fill me in on what I needed to know. Ooops.

The retrospective research shows that there are 3 “stages” of this waterfall at three points along the river. The first is not usually falling unless there is heavy rain. It is also not clearly marked, but it IS a beautiful blue pool that is seriously worth spending some time at. We walked past it thinking we’d come back, but only had a few minutes when we did return. Path onward to the second waterfall is beautiful. There are many unique trees which have informative signs in Korean and English in case you’re into botany. There are some slopes and stairs, but they aren’t onerous. The second waterfall is the most visible. The viewing platform is in a good place and it’s not too hard to slip past the ropes and onto the rocks for a photo op or even to dip your toes in the water. Sadly, we didn’t have time for these things either and only managed to snap a few pictures around the one white guy who decided to go swimming and be in everyone’s vacation photos that day.

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On the way to the 3rd waterfall is a BRIDGE. I use all caps because this thing is massive. It’s beautiful and very much worth going to see, waiting in the line for the photo op spot, and schlepping across. Because of our go-far-first plan, we got to the bridge while it was still largely unoccupied and the line for the best photo spot was short. There were some people setting up vending stands and what seemed like a camp site nearby. There was also another short path to the parking lot.(facepalm) From here, hikers can go across the bridge or continue straight toward waterfall 3. The bridge arches high above the river below, offering some stunning views even in the misty weather. In a small courtyard on the other side is a wishing fountain with 5 animals, each representing a blessing. You stand in front of the one you wish to recieve blessings from and throw your coin. If it lands in the jar in the middle, you get your wish. There was also a pagoda and a viewing platform that provided a long distance view of the falls.

Feeling a bit rushed, we didn’t have time to explore the other trails that led away from this side of the bridge and headed back to the waterfall 3 trail. This trail is all stairs. I’m not unwilling to hike some stairs. I’ve done some stair-a-thons in my time, but never in such soul-sucking humidity. You know how when you get the flu, just getting from your bedroom to the kitchen to make a cup of tea seems like a Hurculean task? It’s like that, but without the other flu symptoms and sauna levels of sweat. I think if I’d gone in the spring or fall these stairs would not have phased me, but being limited on time and trying to hike in the late summer weather made this the most unpleasant section of the walk. Nevertheless, I persevered because I love waterfalls. The final set of stairs passed under an arch of vines and flowers and I was just starting to feel like it was all worth it when we emerged onto the viewing platform.

I keep saying viewing platform. This is because Koreans don’t like getting involved with their nature too close. While in New Zealand I had been able to climb all over the waterfalls that were right off the main roads, and even in WA I was able to climb off the path and explore the falls that were hiking distance from the road, here in Korea the waterfalls are for looking only. Not in a Niagara Falls, you could die if you get caught in this water kind of way either. These waterfalls and pools were not a safety hazard by NZ or US waterfall standards, so it was more than a little disappointing when we trudged down all those stairs (knowing we would have to climb them again) to get to a viewing platform from which the waterfall was not wholly visible. 20160915_115317.jpgThe best view of the falls was obscured by the trees and vines growing around us and was from quite a great distance. I felt cheated. I think it may have been a beautiful waterfall, but the fact that we weren’t able to find out after so many stairs just felt like a bad con. And unlike waterfall 2 which was relatively easy to hop the fence and get closer to, this platform was high above the pool with a very steep and overgrown hillside, making navigation any closer dangerous and difficult.

On top of this, we were running out of time so we felt like we had to push back up all the stairs as quickly as possible. We made it back to the trailhead for waterfall two and decided to go for it. The walk down to the platform was much shorter and easier than three had been and when we arrived on the platform, we breathed a sigh of relief to see a truly stunning waterfall. There was a dude-bro swimming in the pool. I don’t really blame him, the day was hot and the water looked cool and inviting. If we’d had time, I might have gone down to at least wade in the pool with my shoes and socks off. The only real problem was that everyone (Koreans and expats alike) who was following the rules was stuck taking our postcard photos with this guy in them, and again (I won’t say it enough) we were pressed for time so we couldn’t just wait around for him to get out. I ended up snapping a couple picks when he went behind a large rock.  

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I don’t feel like I had this kind of problem in NZ even when lots of people were around because we could all move around the falls at will and get different angles as needed. Maybe I’d feel different if I’d gone in summer and the water was full of people, I can’t say for sure. I also have to admit, I’m not the strongest advocate for always following rules just because they are rules, but there is an issue of courtesy when someplace is popular and crowded. If you need to go illicit swimming, come back on a day or during a time when there aren’t so many people hoping to take nice pictures.

We had a breif debate about whether it would be faster to go to the parking lot via the direction of falls 1 or the bridge, but we hadn’t seen falls 1 so we scurried back up the path we’d first come down. With less than 10 minutes before our scheduled bus departure, I only went partway down the path to the pool. The falls were not falling, but the pool itself was a stunning deep clear blue and it seemed that unlike the other stops, there was very little barrier to visitors walking right up to the waters edge, and maybe even swimming legally. I saw some signs warning that swimming could cause a heart attack, but there wasn’t much English on how or why.. Perhaps it was in reference to the water being cold enough to cause a cold-shock response, at least that’s the best explaination my Korean friends have for it. Either way, a warning about the consequences of swimming seems more promising than a “no swimming” sign. My heart was once more crushed by our lack of time and the poor representation of the map provided resulting in only the briefest of glimpses of this serene azure expanse.

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In summary, I recommend visiting this place, but leave at least half your day to do it. Bring swim gear or at least wading gear and comfortable walking shoes. Spend your time at falls 1 & 2 and the bridge, but really don’t bother with 3 unless you just feel like extra stairs that day. I personally plan to go back to Jeju at some point while I’m living here in better weather and I will be returning to Cheonjiyeon to follow my own advice.

Museums: Believe It or Not

Our next stop was Jungmun Beach. This is a famous surfing beach and also has many museums just inland. I’ve been trying to find a comprehensive list of the museums on Jeju, but it’s not so easy. Despite the fact that these unique niche museums are a cornerstone of Jeju tourism, there isn’t a comprehensive list or a map (in English) showing where they are in relation to one another and other main points of interest. Maybe some day, someone will offer to pay me to make one, but it’s just too much research to do for free. Our tour group told us about 4 near Jungmun: Chocolate Land, the Teddy Bear Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and “an African Safari themed museum”. I saw one about K-Pop while there, but I didn’t go in, so I have no idea what it was like. We thought about taking a taxi to the Hello Kitty Island museum or to the Mini Land which is full of tiny scale models of famous architecture from around the world, but my old enemy TIME kept getting in the way.

20160915_124525.jpgWe went first to Chocolate Land because, well, chocolate. For some reason there was a giant statue of the Incredible Hulk outside. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe giant chocolate sculptures or the world’s biggest M&M, possibly a history of chocolate exhibit, or a making of chocolate section. What the ‘museum’ turned out to be was a room (just one) sparsely populated with display cases showing off packaged candy from various countries. Even this could have been cool if they’d said something about it, why is the Arabian chocolate this way and the British chocolate this way… I tried the Kazakhstan chocolate my friend brought me from her visit home after all and was fascinated to learn the pride that the country takes in it’s national brand. But no, these cases just held boxes of chocolates. Some cases made an attempt at silly displays, like a taxidermied chicken with Cadbury eggs or a Nativity Scene made with chocolate coins, but it was incredibly grandma’s yardsale chincy.

20160915_132851.jpgHalf the room was filled with what seemed like Christmas themed facades that were, I assume, photo ops as well as a cafe where one could get some coffee, soft drinks, ice cream or candy and relax from the arduous walk through the musem. There was a chocolate making “class”, where for 12,000W you could pour some melted chocolate into molds. Outside there was a statue of Willy Wonka, but the Depp version, not the Wilder one. The final room was divided between more odd displays that seemed to have even less to do with chocolate than the ones before and the gift shop where one could redeem the 3000W entrance ticket toward the price of a sovenier. It turns out Jeju chocolate is quite tasty. They make it in fruit flavors that are unique to the island like Hallabang, Jeju Mandarin and Jeju cactus. The same boxes of chocolates are on sale all over, so it was basically like getting a 3000W discount on some chocolate I would have bought anyway for walking through a weird display room.

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We bypassed the Teddy Bear Museum and headed next to Ripley’s. I watched the show as a kid and it might be one of the reasons I love travel and weird stuff and also fact checking. I think I went to a Ripley’s museum in California eons ago, but it still seemed like a fun thing to do. It was a much better museum than Chocolate Land. It was stuffed full of interesting things to see and informative blurbs about each item. The walls contained copies of the Ripley’s newsprint in 4 languages. Where original artifacts were unavailable, models and photographs were supplied. Perhaps my favorite thing was outside. 20160915_155951.jpgThe trunk of a California redwood had been taken apart, transported and reassembled there so that the Koreans could see the stunning size of the redwood trees and experience walking inside the hollow trunk. It struck me that this was as close as most of them would ever get to a redwood and reminded me that museums aren’t just for history, but for the exchange of personal experiences. The most ridiculous thing there was the map of all the places in the world that Ripley had travelled. The map was covered in numbered blue dots with a key below. As we started to try to identify some of the places in the US, we realized that the geography was woefully inaccurate since Siam, Yugoslavia and Burma were all listed as being in the continental 48. Yugo-Slavia [sic] is in Florida.

Roaches and Riptide: the Beach is Closed

After lunch we finally headed down to the beach. There were plenty more types of entertainment on the waterfront including (sadly) a dolphin show, and more happily some boat tours, diving experiences and submarine rides. Unfortunately, either because of the weather (stormy) or the holiday, everything looked non-operational. As we made our way closer to the water, more and more attractions and restaurants were obviously closed, but we were there for the water and sand, so that wasn’t too discouraging. The waves were coming in heavily and it was obvious from a distance that we were dealing with riptide conditions and would not be able to swim safely. We decided to go down to the beach anyway and dabble our toes in the surf. There was a sign on the way down the hill that advised us the beach had closed at the end of August. I know our beaches in Busan technically “close” for much of the year also, but it usually just means don’t go too far out. 20160915_180010On our way past the beach restrooms we reached a point where the floor and walls seemed to move and I realized with horror that the whole path and retaining walls were COVERED in cockroaches. Horror movie levels of roaches. I am not afraid of most bugs. I can be startled by unexpected bug and I have a healthy respect for things that can hurt me, but there is something deeply lizard brain *ACK* about realizing that a good portion of your surrounding landscape is made of bugs. Fortunately, they didn’t want anything to do with us and moved clear of the path as we approached.

The beach wasn’t clean, and not just from the flotsam of a high wind, there was a lot of litter and broken beach furniture. The cliffs surrounding the cove were nice and I could imagine if it were cared for, the beach would have been quite pretty, but between the cockroaches and the garbage I was seriously confused as to why our tour group had chosen this location for “chilling at the beach all day”. We found a leaning canopy to hide our bags under so they didn’t get rained on and headed down to the water.
The ocean is a good remedy for a lot of things and as I watched the stupendous waves breaking just beyond the shore, and felt the salty foam on my toes I just wasn’t worried about the state of the beach anymore. There was plenty of seaweed catching on our legs and the powerful tide buried our feet in the sand it dragged back in.

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At one point an especially large wave knocked me over, which while a little scary, was probably a good thing because having my center of gravity lower and more in contact with the ground prevented the current from pulling me out to sea. I know better than to go far into a rip tide, and most of the waves didn’t come even to my knees, this one was just that big. I heard later from some of the group who had hit the beach earlier that a couple of guys had gone out too far and gotten stuck and had to be rescued by the surfers. My own fall had resulted in a swimsuit full of sand, but it was impossible to rinse it out in the ocean, since each wave just carried more swirling sand. As the tide got higher, it became obvious that the path up to the road could wind up underwater soon, so we gathered our things and headed back.

The public bathrooms had showers, but since the beach was “closed” the doors to the shower rooms were locked and we had to walk sand covered all the way back up the hill to the parking lot restroom where we found a cold water only place to rinse off. It took me a loooong time to get all the sand off, but finally I got clean and mostly dry. We found the only open restaurant which was serving an overpriced buffet style dinner. Finally around 9pm the bus came to take us all back to the hotel. Our best intentions were to enjoy a couple beers at the pool, but by the time we got back, the walking, the heat and the ‘swimming’ had all caught up with us and we crashed out right away.


It does look like I’m complaining a lot here. Not every adventure is perfect or amazing. It was a challenging day and not part of a typical island getaway vacation, there were parts of the day where I was upset, disappointed and even angry, but I had a good friend with me and we were able to help each other remember to take a deep breath, release our expectations and enjoy what was in front of us. I didn’t do any research going into this trip so I didn’t know what was available at each tour stop beyond what our guides told us. I was prepared for rainy weather. I understand a bunch of people got so put out by the rain they went back earlier in the afternoon. Certainly the chocolate museum and the beach weren’t what I might have expected but I don’t feel like it was a waste of time to have seen them. Even the swarm of cockroaches makes a cool story, after all. 

Enjoy the remaining photos on my Facebook page and stay tuned for Part II where things stay rainy but looking up gets better. Plus, the kinkiest theme park in Korea and my first Jimjilbang experience.

Night Hiking

Seattle is not what you would call “warm” most of the year, but we do love our outdoor activities. For the last several years, I’ve been engaged in a swing shift job which keeps me indoors during the afternoons, evenings and weekends when most people like to enjoy the great outdoors after work and before bedtime. But now that summer has happened upon us, and the temperatures at midnight are above 45 degrees, I have taken up a new hobby: night hiking.

Remember when you were a teenager, and would relish the freedom to stay out after dark? Or better yet, when you’d sneak out of the house? Night hiking is like that. When I was in high school and couldn’t sleep, I’d creep out of the house and into the woods behind our yard, or go up to the front of the subdivision and climb the tall brick wall that bordered the main road. I’d just sit up there and listen to the sounds of the night and feel like I really owned my own space for once.

Now, there’s no one to tell me to go to bed, and I’m old enough that I’m not likely to get harassed for being a hoodlum. So there’s less illicit thrill in night hiking than there was in sneaking out after curfew. However, it does still elicit a wonderful sense of the strange yet calm. The boundaries and obligations of daytime occupations drift away, and the world is a magical place again.

There are really quite a large number of walking/biking trails around Seattle, and a tremendous number of parks (some of which are closed after 11pm,  most of which are not locked, but I would  never advocate any illegal activity, of course).

In the last several weeks we have gone to a  mountain trail in the Cougar/Squak Mountain area (flashlights are advised for emergencies, but if the moon is out, you can often see the path quite clearly without one), along the Inter-Urban trail in Shoreline, into a quiet still playground, and even a graveyard. Police might think its strange, but usually unless you’re drunk, loud or otherwise obviously breaking the law, they tend to be fairly cool when you explain its just a walk.

So the next time you’re wondering what to do with your night off, instead of heading to a bar/club/party, grab a good friend (and maybe a good bottle of wine), and put a tree line between yourself and civilization.

My Walking Shoes

Tonight I went out for a stroll among the local parks. We found a playground and a bog. There’s something really magical about public parks at night. Lit only by the reflection of the city lights off the clouds, they are tiny little oasis of beauty and solitude. On my way back home, I found myself looking at my feet. This is not something I do often, as I was taught to look up while walking, especially at night, however within the safety of my locked apartment building on the way to my door, I looked down and saw my walking shoes.

wpid-20140605_031219.jpgMy walking shoe of choice is the high-top, black and white, converse. I have loved this shoe since high school, and have probably owned 5-6 pairs since then. I don’t wear them unless I’m planning on doing more walking than from the apartment to the car to the office because I really love taking my shoes off whenever I possibly can, which includes at home and under my desk at work. Sometimes, they live in my car so I can take spontaneous walks. Tonight, I put them on to leave the house, because I knew that we were going in search of the really neat looking playground I spotted last week during the day.

Perhaps because of a somewhat reflective and poetic state of mind brought about by the summer night’s air and the croaking of frogs mingled with the whooshing of cars, I noticed how completely dingy my shoes had become. And then I really thought about that dirt… all the places that dirt has come from. The craggy steps of Huashan, the lava tube caves beneath St. Helen’s, the mulch of the giant Redwood forests, cities, countries, farms, fields, caves, and mountains… my shoes are colored with the grime of wonders.

What color are your walking shoes? What scuffs and stains and ground in dirt from your adventures are they carrying. These shoes do not merely protect our feet, or convey us to our destination. They are a legacy in grime of every great moment they carried you to.

So the next time you put on your walking shoes, stop for a moment. Appreciate that dirt, and remember where it came from, how it got there, and how each step in your journey has colored you with wonders too.

Three Faces of the Great Wall

There are dozens of places you can visit the Great Wall if you are in China. Many of the most convenient are within a day trip of Beijing. Each time I have traveled to Beijing, I’ve taken one of these day trips to a different spot: Mutianyu, Huangyaguan, and Jiankou. Each of them has something different and interesting to offer, and are all a great way to spend a day. These aren’t the complete stories of each adventure, but rather a side by side view of all three.

Brief Words of Advice

Hire a “private taxi”. Many websites tell you how you can take a bus out to the sites, and you can, but  its hard to explore properly when you have to be worried about catching the bus back. Also, the buses are way overcrowded and you might wait a long time to board, which is just less time for exploring. Private taxis are basically those who own their own car and are willing to be your driver for the day for a set price. Make sure to negotiate the price ahead of time, and don’t pay them until you’re all done. To give you some basic idea of a fair price, in 2005 we paid 500RMB, in 2012 we paid 600RMB. The drivers take you out, wait for you in the parking lot all day, and return you to your evening destination.

Don’t bother going to Badaling. Every tour group in China goes there. It is like the Disney of the Great Wall, and is only good for snapping a pic and buying a t-shirt. It was renovated for Nixon’s visit, and again for the Olympics in 2008. It is crowded, inauthentic, crowded, and full of people trying to sell you overpriced junk. No matter what your personal goals are, I guarantee there is a better section of the Great Wall for you to experience than this one.

Mutianyu & the Ming Tombs

My very first trip to China in 2005, after my contract in Jinan was over, I went up to spend a week with a friend from school in Beijing. Of course, I wanted to go to the Great Wall, so my friend arranged a private taxi to take us to Mutianyu. Despite the fact that it was summer, there were very few tourists at this location, we basically had the wall to ourselves aside from the occasional vendor. We chose to go up the side without the slide, but I have to admit, this is the first part of the Wall I want to take my niece and nephew to, because what kid doesn’t want to slide down the Great Wall of China?

The far side was less developed. It felt almost surreal to be in such a huge space with so few people in it after the last two months that I had spent being constantly crowded by the Chinese. When we reached the end of the open path, we could see beyond the fence that trees had grown up in the wall beyond, and what had once been a symbol of Imperial power, was being reclaimed by the mountain.

One of the great things about Mutianyu (aside from the slide) is its proximity to the Ming Tombs. Many Chinese Imperial families had elaborate tombs, and the Ming are no exception. This is a neat underground tour of the actual tomb, and some above ground museums and gardens. It is definitely worth the stop over if you’re heading to Mutianyu.

Huangyaguan & Guancheng

In 2007, I was working for a state run school, and they decided to take all us expat teachers out to the Great Wall for a day in the early fall. This was the only trip I took as part of such a large group, but it was ok because it was just teachers from my school. The school got us a little charter bus, and off we went.

At the base of the Wall there is a little town where we ate lunch, and there was also a series of beautiful gardens and a museum. This kind of thing is really the proof that not all sections of the Great Wall are the same. While the Wall itself can be slightly repetitive, especially in the well restored areas, these little gems are well worth making multiple Wall excursions, or at very least, carefully choosing which experience you want to have.

The gardens included a stele garden, a maze based on the Bagua (eight diagrams), and a miniature replica of the Great Wall.

The Wall is steep, and the views are lovely. Like many areas of the Wall, the further you get from the entry point, the less well restored it is. If you have the patience and stamina to keep walking you will get to some very different stone work that is the work of dynasties long past, and be rewarded with a view of miles of wall in either direction.

Jiankou

In 2012, I took some friends to China for the first time. Like all first time visitors, the Great Wall was a priority, but they were polite enough to want to make sure I got to see something new. We decided on Jiankou because it was described as being the wildest and least restored part of the Great Wall within a day trip of Beijing. Words like “dangerous” and “experienced hikers” appealed to us. And boy is it worth it.

This is just one more reason to hire private taxis. The driver we hired knew a “secret spot” basically where he and some other drivers were (presumably) bribing local officials to bring tourists into this closed off section of the wall. There are publicly open sections of Jiankou, but our driver asked if we wanted a more restored or more wild experience. Wild, of course, we replied! And so we had a wonderful, private  expanse of Wall that had been unrestored for at least 100 years, if not more.

Huge swathes of the Wall had simply collapsed down the side of the mountain. Stairs were no more than a shamble of blocks. Trees had grown up in the pathways, leaving us with thin, single file paths through the foliage. It was breathtaking. Not a single restaurant or vendor to be found, so make sure you pack plenty of water and snacks.

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Each one of these journeys was amazing and offered a completely different view of China’s history and achievements. So, if the Great Wall is on your bucket list, I hope this helps you make the most of it.