Quick Weekend trips #3

Wando & Cheongsan islands

Jenni and her father, Brian, came to visit us for a bit in August, and we took them camping on Wando, a small island just an hour or so south east of Mokpo.  It was Korean Liberation Day, a 3 day weekend, so we rented a car and took off after work for the event.  It seems that everyone else had the same idea, so we arrived late, scrounged up a campsite pretty close to a few other tents, and set up camp in the dark. We woke up to find even more tents had been put up in the night, and were surrounded by a million people who brought their entire house camping.  Unfortunately, it rained the whole time but we made the best of it.

We wandered along the coast in the morning, collecting seashells and exploring in a light rain. Wando, like Mokpo, is surrounded by hundreds of islands that create a sound to protect it a bit from the open ocean.  The waves are small and the water is calm and blue. People were out collecting seaweed and mollusks from the beach that they took back to their campsite for breakfast (we watched them cooking them in their camp kitchens later).  After a good hike along the coast and through a wooded area we decided to go into town and check things out.

We found these awesome  smiling statues and took our pictues with them, we went to Wando’s “pebble beach,” but best of all we went to the arboretum.

On "Pebble" beach

We pulled into the entrance and were told that the arboretum would be closing in an hour, but we were welcome to go on in.  An hour turned out to be nowhere close to enough time to see the place.  The arboretum was more like a nature preserve on the side of a mountain.  It contained, 2050 hectares or  just under 5,000 acres. (That’s about the size of two White Bear Lakes. I think. -Mike)

We saw awesome flowers, plants, trees, and large black hovering butterflies that we lovingly termed “humbutterbats.”  It was a good day.  On the way home we stopped in town for Abalone stew.  Abalone are a technically snail, but they look like a clam with only a top shell. Despite being snails, and hideous, they are quite delicious. Back home they’re also quite expensive, but Wando produces 90% of Korea’s abalone, so on the beachfront, a few hundred yards of where the boats bring them in, it is pretty affordable.

We had ours boiled up in a soup with a few other delicacies from the sea like mussels and shrimp. As they say here, mahshi-soyo! It was served with a million side dishes, as well as some tasty soju.  We were confused about how to eat some of it, but the guys at the table next to us were so sweet, they just kept looking over and teaching us stuff. Koreans are very friendly, especially when food and drink are involved.  It was super fun.

The next day we went off to Cheongsando island, home  of the slow walking festival.  “What?” you say, yes a slow walking festival — Korea has it ALL.  Cheongsando is a medium sized island whose culture of a slow, traditional life has been celebrated and promoted by the Korean ministry of tourism. It is part of the international  cittaslow movement, a pretty cool idea indeed. We spent 4-5 hours wandering this beautiful island, hiking mountains, making crafts, searching for shells while the tide was out, eating yummy panchang and drinking the rustic fermented rice beverage known as makkoli.  It rocked.

The only minor regret was my impulse purchase of freshly harvested mung ge sashimi.  It looked good, and was next to a mollusk I had already eaten sashimi style, so we went for it.

Mongae fish – not as tasty as they look.

Ummm… it was bitter and slimy, and had bits of organ in every bite.  A group of Korean tourists were watching, wondering how we could possibly not enjoy every bite.  We offered it to them and they shared amongst themselves.  We agreed in the end that it was an adventure worth having and it was nice to make people happy with free food.

Later that night we got some beer, sweet potato pizza, fried chicken, and fire works and returned to camp.  There was a happy drunk guy at the pizza joint who told us that he had played Martina Navratalova and Jimmy Conners in mixed doubles at the 1982  Wimbeldon.  Who knows if it is true, happy drunk people say many things.  Either way, his autograph is on my wall.  We went to camp to have one last happy night of camping before Jenni and Brian set off to Jeju.

Yeokchansa temple

Jeju

In September, Liz came to visit. We took her to Jeju island for our four day Chuseok weekend. It was another wonderful outing.  We took the ferry from Mokpo. The 9:30 leaving Mokpo is a huge car carrying ferry that takes around 5 hours, the 9:30 am return is a small hopper that is fast, but super bouncy.  If we go again I think we might take a plane.

Jeju is a huge island which takes about one hour to bus/cab from north to south.  It has a large, dormant volcanic mountain in the center.  It is beautiful.   We stayed at the jeju highland pension on the southern side of the island, near the Yeokchansa temple, which is one of the largest temples in Korea. It was stunningly tall, with a five-story atrium with a giant buddha and two dragons clutching white globes coiled around the columns inside. Murals of less major boddhisatvas lined the corridors, each telling its own story of enlightenment, and suffering.

The next day we went up to Loveland, and a more surreal experience and different from a serene buddhist temple you won’t find. Loveland is designed to put newlyweds ‘in the mood’ for their conjugal duties, but it’s mostly a kitschy ode to nudity, phallocentric fantasy, and erotic tastelessness. None of the pictures we took are family-safe, so you’ll need to use your imagination. But we will admit that we were highly amused, in a junior-high sort of way.

We ended our trip to another Korean sauna, this one on the north side of the island. We were surprised to find that the hot-rooms here were equipped with televisions. It wasn’t as relaxing as the Busan saunas. Part of the reason to sit in a sauna, as I see it, is to sit quietly and think about the heat, and televisions kind of ruin the mood. We were able to find a room with no Koreans in it, so we did shut off the TV and enjoy a few minutes of solitude in the rock salt room. This was a hot room whose entire floor was covered in rock salt chunks. We lay down and covered ourselves in the rocks, which created the nice impression of a warm, salty hug. I know that sounds strange, but in the moment, it felt quite nice.

Since these trips  Jim, Mike’s dad, has been to visit. I (Mike) went up to Seoul for a father son weekend with him. We loved having him around and took him to Bigeumdo for a day trip.  He knows we’d get a bigger apartment if he ever wanted to move here.  😉  We’re both looking forward to more adventures to report back to you.

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On a side note, I am happy that South Korea doesn’t have daylight savings time.  I don’t have to change my clock.  Unfortuntaly, we are now 15 hours ahead of MN.   We miss you and will wake up even earlier to Skype with you on the weekends.  Smooch, Akasha

Quick weekend trips #2

As you well know, it takes hours to get to a small city like Duluth from Minneapolis.  It is about 8 hours to Chicago or St. Louis and about two days drive to a western city.  But South Korea is a small, dense country, and all the cities are close together, and they have an excellent, cheap transportation system, so day trips are much more convenient. We have been taking advantage of this by taking several short trips. Here are brief descriptions of a few of them to whet your appetite for Mokpo and its surrounding beauty:

Muan White Lotus Festival

In July we went to Muan, a small city like Duluth, MN, for the Muan White Lotus Festival.   Muan boasts the largest white lotus pond in Asia, at 330,000 square meters.  Mike and I split a cab, driven by our neighbor, with two friends. The 30 minute ride cost us only $25.  The festival grounds are beautiful, and the spreading lotus leaves are larger than chair cushions! We went on one of the first weekends, before the crowds set in, so ours was a quiet festival, more like a county fair. We walked around the lotus ponds, or across them on huge stones, and rode a swan shaped paddle boat through them.  There were all sorts of regional crafts, foods, and music.  We ate a delicious lotus panchang (Korean pancake), Mike, Meagan, and Shawn played traditional drums, and I made a decorative fan.  It was good fun for about 3 hours. Then we caught a taxi home. Yes, there is a bus to Muan, but four tickets would have cost the same as all of us sharing 1 taxi, and we got door-to-door service. Strength in numbers!

Here is a video of the crafts section of the festival.  You’ll see, and hear, Mike, Shawn, and Meagan playing drums as I show you the cafe, where they cook the food in the open air, and chat with a slightly tipsy dad, see a clay goods seller (I liked the bowls, but they were $20 each), a booth with paper lanterns and fans and other hand made items, and a cool bark house.

Oedaldo island 

The next weekend we took a ferry out to Oedaldo, a small island about an hour’s ferry ride west of Mokpo.  Oedaldo is famous for its sea-water pool and beautiful beach.  It is nicknamed “Love Island” for its beautiful gardens and the beach where couples can spend time together, but it seemed more like a family-centered place, with kids running around eating ice cream and splashing in the pool, than it did a romantic get away.

It was incredibly hot and humid, which is typical for a Mokpo summer, so we cooled  off under a patio umbrella with a melon ice cream popsicle and a propel icee, and watched the families play.  After we were sufficiently cool we wandered around the island.  Mokpo is covered in 15 story high rises, so it was nice to see scattered one story homes and low, bucolic farms.  It was in the mid-90’s and we were getting parched so we stopped in to a cafe for water.  The owner took one look at Akasha’s beet-red face and told us to come enjoy the “air-con! Air-con!”  It turns out they have a pension as well.  We asked him if we could come back with the dog and he said “dog yes” as if that was no biggie whatsoever.  I got his card.  We are totally going back for a fall/winter weekend getaway. For us, Oedaldo was a mellow getaway with sandy beaches just a quick ferry from the city.  We left around 2 pm and were home around 6.

Busan

The weekend following that was the Busan girls’ weekend.  A group of us took the bus to Gwangju (45 min), then over to Busan (4 hrs) for a 3 day weekend.  Our mission was eating western food and going to the beach.  Mission accomplished! Mokpo is a great city, but there is a serious lack of western food here.  Good luck getting burgers and fries, burritos, breakfast food, or anything not Korean.  In Busan, we stayed at a love motel for $6 each (4 or 5 girls to a room.)  We had one western style bed, and the rest of us slept on Korean style ondol (floor) mats.  As I’ve mentioned before, Korean beds are extremely hard (Our bed at home is just a box spring), so the floor mat is just as comfy as the bed.

We got into town, dropped off our bags, and hit Gwangalli beach to find a burger.  We found a great burger and fries, even milk shakes (fyi, they put crushed ice in a milk shake here) at Breeze Burns.  The menu said that there was English style breakfast so we had to go back.  After a dinner we went upstairs to a cafe that had a great view of the beach, and served Sangria.  It was a great start to a relaxing weekend.  We walked along the beach and enjoyed the suspension bridge as it changed colors.  The girls went off to a club to dance and I went to the hotel to chill out.  They made many friends and ended up dancing salsa on the beach with a few guys from the Dominican Republic. 🙂

In the morning we went back for breakfast at Breeze Burns.  It was nice to eat familiar foods like toast, eggs, and ham.  Then we took the subway to Hyundai beach, and were overwhelmed by it all.  Hyuandai beach is uniquely Korean.  The umbrellas (rentals) are waist high and side by side to prevent any sun from reaching your skin.  There are speakers blasting k-pop and announcements non-stop, and vendors selling fired chicken and iced coffee (K beach food.)

Beach culture is completely different.  Sun bathing is undesireable here. People go to the beach, and in the water, completley clothed in 90 degree heat.  They wear hoodies and baseball hats to shield themselves from the sun.  Swimming is not a universal skill here, and it is startlingly different.  The swimming area is only 122 m from beach to buoy.  It is heavily patrolled by wet suit wearing life gaurds.  People are side-by-side in their inflatable tubes.  It’s just plain different. The water is warm, but thick with styrofoam beads from the markers for fishing cages.  It was worth a visit, but I think I prefer my small island beaches.  I chilled under the umbrella reading a book with a few of the girls for an hour before we headed off to the sauna. The other half of us walked the down the beach to a hill where they hiked around.

Okay, this was my first Korean Sauna experience, I’ve gone monthly since then.  It is AWESOME!  The place that we went to the first time was by far the best I’ve had.  You pay a $10 entrance fee and are given a key on a bracelet with your number.  You put your shoes in a little locker with your key, then go on to the girls floor (in my case.)  There you put your clothes and stuff in a locker, go take a shower and scrub from head to toe.  Once scrubbed you can go in the mineral tubs and soak in varying degrees of hot or cold water, lay under a “waterfall” that will pound your sore muscles into submission, lounge, get a massage or a scrub.  I got a scrub and massage and it was amazing.  My Korean friend said that many people go monthly. When they were finished I felt as soft and smooth as a baby.

Mike says: I can attest to her baby-smooth skin. And, I also enjoy the jimjibangs – the hot rooms are incredibly hot, like Hopi sweat-lodge hot, totally hot enough for mystic visions.

After the sauna we went back to Gwangalli beach for “Mexican” dinner at a place called Fuzzy Navels.  Somehow they managed to duplicate Minnesota Mexican food in Korea, how I’ll never know.  It was a Mexican as my school lunches, but still a yummy attempt at Nachos, pork burritos, and margaritas.  Oh, and grape jello shots! We woke up in the morning, grabbed pastries (another hard to find food item in the ‘po) and hopped on the subway to take the bus on home.  It was a rock star weekend with excellent company.

Mike and I returned in August with Jenni and Brian for our last weekend visit with them.  We enjoyed the Busan aquarium with pretty cool jellyfish displays. We stayed in three differently awesome love motels.  It rained the entire trip, so we only spent a bit at the beach, but we definitely enjoyed the view and the soft sand.  Mike and I were in love with the public library at the beach (on the sand.)  I really wish that it had stopped raining long enough to go on the ferris wheel.

There are so many great places to go here that we had to cut this post in half.  We’ll publish the other one in a bit.  It includes our Chuseok trip to Jeju island. Maybe you can visit and take a side trip too.

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Our first weekend trip

Our weekends have been filled with errands, setting up the house, buying necessities, getting our bearings straight in our neighborhood.  But we have had two little “weekend” trips.

Our first trip was to the mountain top in Mokpo, Yuldul-San.   Thursday, may 5th  was Children’s Day, so Mike and I had the day off.  We walked down the parkway by our place, along the coast line, to the Dalseonggak entrance, about 30 minutes if I wasn’t dilly- dallying. The parkway was active with Children’s Day activities: kids games, snacks, face painting, and live music.  It looked like a lot of fun.     Then we passed the fish market.  There are about 20 restaurants with fish tanks out front.  You place your order, the cook retrieves and prepares your fish. Freshness counts!  We stopped for a snack at a food cart and grabbed some waffles.  Yes, delicous waffles are everywhere here.

We followed the signs to the mountain, in Korean and English, and passed a few exercise stations and vegetable fields.   Along the way we passed  an orphanage and an elementary school.  The elementary school had solar panels on the roof and wind turbines.  So cool. The entrance  to the hiking path had the distance in kilometers and the approximate hiking time, 20 minutes.  It is a  well groomed path, with stairs at the beginning, but very steep.  You are very aware that you are in a city, you can even hear traffic at the top.   There were challenging  parts towards the top where we had to boulder hop and climb the rocks, but no equipment was needed.  In fact, one dad climbed down while carrying his three year old!

As we climbed down some men began calling us over to them.  We stopped by their pagoda and they invited us to join them for Korean BBQ, Samgeyopsal and Soju.  We sat with them for about a half an hour, they were very kind and went out of their way to make conversation with us.  It was an excellent way to spend the day and get an idea of our new city.

That weekend, May 6th,  we went to Hampeyong for the butterfly festival.   Hampeyong is a 40 minute bus ride away. It is a small town with a big main street surrounded by a few housing developments and agricultural land.  It reminded me of New Prague.   We rode in a county bus line, it made two stops and was a very comfortable coach tour bus.  The butterfly festival runs for two weeks and reminded me of a county fair without the FFA or 4H. (boo)

There is a food court that sells regional food like Korean BBQ, red bean cakes, and berry drinking vinegar.  There is a regional

trades pavilion where we sampled local honeys, teas, rices, makkoli (like soju) and sweets, saw local textiles and arts, and geeked out.  Like all good fairs it had a midway, but this midway was at the base of a hill, so they planted flowers in the shape of a butterfly on the hill as a backdrop.  Very romantic.

There was a traditional arts and crafts area that was kinda cool.  They had local artiseans and vendors selling traditional products.  They also had a cool place where kids could make and play.

Kids were playing a hoop and stick racing game, a stick -toss, lawn darts style game, throwing pots on a wheel, and making cool paper boxes.

One of the most surprising things I saw was the celebration of insects.  There were insect sculptures every where, horned beetles, grasshoppers, mantis’ etc.  There was an area teaching kids about the 4 stages of Horned beetle development where you could play with the larve.  It was a beetle love fest!  Don’t get me wrong, not everyone was into it; there were plenty of 20 something women shrieking at the beetles.  But kids were walking around with cages carrrying their new horned beetles home (like goldfish, ‘cept beetlier.)

I can’t express how cool it was.  There were tons of flowers everywhere,  poppies, rape flower (canola), azelias, marigolds, flowering trees, while it was still brisk in MN.  There was so much new food and stuff that I’m still figuring out.  Oh, and there were super cool swan shaped paddle boats in a little lake.  We were there for 3 hours and I don’t think that we saw half of it.  I would totally consider going again next year.

It may not be as exciting and hip as the Formula 1 race track in town, but we geeked out on it.

P.S.  Happy Memorial Day weekend everyone!  Be safe and have some BBQ for us.  Korean BBQ is delicious, but we miss American BBQ.