Churches, Canyons, and Donkeys: A week in Ethiopia

Ever since Akasha taught students from Ethiopia in Apple Valley, Minnesota, she has had a fondness for its culture and food. When we are visiting Minnesota, we often make a point to have dinner at her favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Fasika on Snelling. Looking at the travel sites only made us want to investigate further. So with a week off in February, we booked tickets and asked our friend Kristen to join us, and our whirlwind tour of Northern Ethiopia was in place.

Lalibela
We started early Saturday morning and we landed in Addis Ababa, late at night. We were there only long enough for a five hour nap, then we went back to the airport for a quick flight to Lalibela, an ancient capital best known for its 11 churches that have been carved down into the earth from solid stone.

These churches were built 900 years ago by King Lalibela. His citizens were spending 3 months walking  on pilgrimage to  Jerusalem each December. So he consulted with bishops, built a pilgrimage site, and had it ordained. Since then, it has been the center of a vibrant Christian community and it remains a holy site for the country’s Orthodox population.

Our paths kept crossing with a family dressed in elaborate clothing who were celebrating a recent wedding.They were enjoying the sight seeing and taking wedding photos.  Later, Akasha met up with he family and  found out the bride lives in Worthington, Minnesota. She had returned home to marry her sweetheart. It really is a small world.

Lalibela slide show:

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We had an amazing hike among the churches and through the landscape. It is still a mystery how they were carved down into solid rock hundreds of years ago. There isn’t evidence of where the rock they removed was taken to, though the king explained it was the divine work of angles. Our guide explained that it took 24 years, with men working all day and angels working all night.

Because they are below ground, the path to many churches lay along narrow grooves carved into the stone. There were also tunnels linking the complexes together. One of them, ‘the road to hell,’ took us ten minutes to walk through, in total darkness. It was a bit scary but we came out alive!

ethiopia-17

The top of St. George’s cathedral. The best known, St. George’s Cathedral, was one of the last to be built. It’s an impressive slab of stone with a huge set of crosses carved into the top. The ground near St George is also home to a troop of monkeys, who had no problem cavorting about on the churches and were happy to pose for pictures.

The legendary friendliness of Ethiopians was on display that evening, when we met a young man named Timothy, who offered to bring us to a local bar to see how Ethiopians enjoyed the evening. He brought us to a restaurant that served tej, the local mead made of honey and sorghum. The Tej House was off the main street and down a flight of stairs, and inside was a room lit with strings of red LED’s.

Dancing in the tej house.

It was the day before observant Orthodox began fasting for Lent, and the mood was a bit like Mardi Gras. A man strolled around the room playing a violin-like instrument with a single string called a Masinko, and a woman sang along while others danced and clapped. One of them coaxed Akasha and Kristen onto the dance floor to try out the shoulder-shaking, hip swaying moves of the locals.

After a while we were joined again by the wedding party we’d met at the church, so it was quite a day of meetings and festivites. When it was time to leave, Timothy walked us back to our hotel, and though we kept expecting him to ask for a tip, he just hopped into a tuk-tuk taxi and left. It was a wonderful night, thank you Timothy!

Hiking the Canyons
Then next morning we went on the road to hike among the canyons and farmland of the region. We took a tour that gave us three nights and four days in the farm country of this beautiful area.

We should also mention our guide, Getnet, was a wonderful resource and good friend for the three days we knew him. Good-natured, knowledgeable,  and friendly, we spent many hours chatting on the trail, and many nights exchanging stories around the campfire, and after our four day hike were sorry to lose his company. He was full of riddles and stories that he had collected from the travelers he met as a guide and we enjoyed sitting with him around the fire, trading and comparing adventure tales.

Hiking Slideshow:

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Most of our hiking was over stony paths that bordered fields being tilled for the next season’s planting. The ground here is rich but full of stones, so the farmers have to work hard. They still plow the field behind a pair of oxen, persuading them to turn with a whip that sounded sharp as firecrackers. Everyone was very friendly and eager to shake hands and say Salem (hello), and the children all rushed out to greet us. The whole trip children ran out to us, waving and calling goodbye until they couldn’t see us any more.

On our first evening, Kristen was lucky enough to spot a troop of baboons. Our guide, Getnet, led us down down to the valley floor, where the baboons congregated in a big troop to forage for grass roots. We watched them dig and walk, the babies riding the backs of the mothers while others played on the edge of a mostly dry waterfall in the golden light of the setting sun.

Here we are, chilling on the canyon edge.

The community lodges were amazing. Made of stacked stone held by straw and mud mortar, they all stood on the edge of huge canyons with spectacular views. We had huge beds and big windows that opened out to beautiful vistas. When we arrived sofas made of eucalyptus wood and leather were brought out for us to enjoy the view and relax while we drank coffee. Even the toilets had a great view, though if you took a mis-step you’d have a much faster trip to the valley floor than you wanted! And the people taking care of us were warm and friendly. They cooked dinner at night and breakfast in the morning, even roasting the coffee over a flame, right before they brewed it. We signed the guest book at each lodge and it was amazing to see the names and comments from people going back to the first guest.

One of the guest books

We took some pictures of the coffee-brewing process and made short video. Enjoy:

Akasha in an Acacia tree.

Akasha in an Acacia tree.

On our hike we enjoyed the trees and shrubs, from the aromatic sage to the noble thistle and the cutely named ‘monkey farts.’ One of our favorite trees were the ones that branched out to form a big canopy of ground cover, and Akasha was delighted to find out they were Acacia trees. So she of course had to climb one, and now we have a photo of Akasha in an Acacia tree, which makes the world that much more complete.

And at night the sky was incredible with stars – we spotted Orion right away but had trouble finding the Big Dipper, usually the easiest constellation to find. It wasn’t till Mike played with SkyMaps for a while that we realized we were so far south, the Big Dipper was below the horizon, which never happens up north. It feels like a big world when even the stars change on you!

Gonder
A few hours drive from Lalibela, in the northwest corner of Ethiopia, kings of the old Ethiopian empire built castles. They were inspired by the Portuguese and the castles have a distinctly western feel. Built from 1606 to the early 1700’s, as a series of emperors built their own castle on the grounds,  it has become a compound of great stone structures. We spent several hours here, in the old bedrooms and dining halls, saunas and courtyards. Although for us it was a brief stop, it’s a worthy goal for any castle-hunters looking for something off the beaten path, and like nothing you’d expect to see.

Gonder Slideshow

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Bahir Dar
South of Gonder is Lake Tana, the largest lake in the country and the source of the Blue Nile river. Here, we took a boat trip into the headwaters of the Blue Nile, where we saw more wildlife than we could imagine. Fish Eagles rested in treetops, cormorants stood on rocks, and hippopotamuses wandered in the shallow water. It was amazing to see them in real life, outside a zoo, even if we were only able to see their heads. One of them had a baby that poked its cute little head out!

Then we crossed the lake, which has two islands that hold monasteries – one for nuns, the other for monks. On the far side we hiked around to see more churches. This was the hometown of our guide, and he happily showed us the local plants – ferns that curled up when you touched them, bean pods that made great spinning toys, and wild coffee plants, just starting to bloom. We only had a few hours in Bahir Dar, which was a shame. Our guide invited us to meet his family and visit his village, but we had a flight to catch.

Bahir Dar

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Addis Ababa
After all that, we had a day to spend in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Addis has a population of almost 4 million people, and it seems like they are all on the street all the time. Every road is lined with pedestrians, and ad hoc marketplaces are everywhere. Even the road up the mountain to another royal palace was filled with people carrying loads of eucalyptus, donkey caravans, and tourist vans.

Fruit for sale, Addis Ababa

We visited the fabric market, then drove through the Mercado, and stared in awe at the always-on bustle of an unfettered free market – you name it, you can find it in this sprawling landmark of the city.

Addis Ababa slideshow:

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Well, it was a fantastic trip – we even saw Lucy, the 3.3 million year old human prototype (or a plaster cast of her bones anyway) – in the national museum!

And this was just a small part of Ethiopia – there’s the whole southern section, with the Great Rift Valley, that we haven’t even gotten to. And of course there’s the entire rest of the African continent to find adventure in. So stay tuned, we’re not done yet!

The Great Mom visit of 2015!

My (Mike’s) mom is kind of a homebody. Aside from a few trips to Fargo every year, she’s content to stay in the Twin Cities, near her garden and the library. But ever since we moved abroad, she’s been hankering for an overseas visit.

The Christmas tree at Munich's town hall

The Christmas tree at Munich’s town hall

Lured by the promise of Christmas markets and European hot chocolate, Mom made the trip to Munich in December, where we met up for some winter tourism.

Munich is one of my favorite cities – it’s a perfect blend of old-world charm and new West conveniences. We stayed in one of Akasha and my favorite hotel chains – the Leonardo – which had great access to trams that led to the city center, and near several nice restaurants including the Lowenbrau beer hall. Prost!

We were fortunate in the weather – clear and cool, with a high blue sky – and spent the first day exploring the masterpieces of the Alte Pinakotech art museum. Here we brushed up against Rubens, Rembrandt, and the great German Albrecht Drurer. Mom loved the style of the Old Masters, marveling at how they painted eyes that could follow you around the room. She stopped often to sit and take in the works, communing with the painter.

Meet the new Queen

Meet the new Queen

Next day we took in the old imperial residence. This is a sprawling complex of stone towers and dusty corridors, but the treasury is a relatively intimate space filled with a hoard of silver masterpieces, gemstone encrusted jewelry, and many royal crowns. The big hit here was the ruby-encrusted tiara of Queen Theresa, an enchanting fantasy of glimmering gemstones that let mom indulge in a bit of fairy-tale imagining.

Back on the Town Square we took in the Rathus glockenspiel show – a carousel of medieval figures dancing and even jousting on a tiny platform high above the crowd.

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The Glockenspiel on Munich’s town hall

Then it was back to the markets, which were the hit of the trip. All over Germany, on the historic market squares, vendors set up shop to sell the goods of the season. It was a shame we only got to two or three of them. Mom was a thorough shopper, and as a true connoisseur of the season, she was careful to check each vendor’s ornaments for quality, uniqueness, and adorability before adding the chosen ornaments to her collection.

Near our Prague hotel

Near our Prague hotel

From Munich we went on to Prague, where the medieval architecture left mom speechless. From the great forked towers of the Lady of Tym church, to the stained glass wonderland of St. Vitus cathedral, we walked around with our jaws dropped. I’d been there before, but to see it through her fresh eyes returned a sense of wonder too easily lost by the frequent traveler.

It was here we tried haluska, a stirred-up hot dish of cabbage, pork, and potatoes, a spiritual ancestor to one of Mom’s favorite North Dakota childhood dishes, halupsi. But this wasn’t the same – it had starchy potatoes that had gone gummy over its time in the pot. “Guess I don’t need to try that again,” was mom’s one-star review.

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The Christmas Market in Prague

Wroclaw was next on her Central European excursion. We found some wonderful walking paths through Cathedral island that lead to St. John the Baptist’s cathedral. After that it was time (again!) to storm the Christmas markets, where she came away with more gifts for everyone back home, plus a few more for herself.

A week later, we took mom back to the States for the holidays, and spent ten days visiting Minnesota. That was a hectic, wonderful time too easily lost and taken for granted. But ever since her visit, I’m trying to take my mom’s example to heart, and I’ve resolved to keep trying to see every wonder around me, however common or seen before, through fresh eyes for as long as I can.

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Winter vacation: Island hopping in London and Dublin

Well, it is March, so we might as well share what we did in January.  Such is the schedule of blogging and living – always so much to do and much less time to record it in.

Korean public schools break for a few weeks every winter, and everyone gets a vacation. We get 24 days of winter break, which is a pretty good deal, more than the private school teachers get, which is next to nothing. And, since our time in Korea is drawing short, we did what American teachers who don’t have jobs lined up do – went to a job fair!

The nearest one was in London, and while England isn’t your typical winter vacation destination, we booked tickets, threw in a few nights in Dublin, and viola! An island-hopping winter vacation is born! True, the islands are Ireland and Britain, and the season is all wrong, but you get the idea.

Here’s a quick photo tour of the highlights:

Korean Restaurant

A Korean restaurant in Dublin – You can take the foreigners out of Korea, but you can’t take Korea out of the rest of the world. We did not eat here, since we can get Korean food in Korea, and because we wanted to sample all the other wonderful food the isles had to offer.

LondonDublin02

We were out of Korea, and jumping for joy at our beer options. This is on the Guinness Storehouse tour. Also in Dublin is the Jameson distillery, home of the smoothest whiskey in the world! Ireland, you may gather, takes its libations quite seriously, and we, being gracious guests, did our best to appreciate the local flavors.

Then we went to the Dublin zoo, a nice little zoo in the middle of Pheonix park. While it’s not as large as many zoos, the animals were in fairly large enclosures and seemed happy, except for the big gorillas, but then again gorillas seem pretty grumpy even in the wild. Here’s Harry, elder statesman of the gorilla paddock, having a chat with Akasha:

HarryA woman we met there said that this is one of Harry’s favorite things to do – squat next to the glass and socialize with the people on the other side. Not a bad retirement plan, when you think about it.

Irish history is long on oppression and invasion, none more important that the British occupation that ended in 1920’s. There were many frequent uprisings during that time, so it’s no surprise that Irish prisons played a great role in the planning of the new country that emerged. The most famous and well maintained of these old prisons is Kilmainham Gaol, a large building with expansions marking many steps in the evolution of prisons.

Kilmainham GaolIt’s also been used to film many movies, so if it looks familiar, that may be why.

Dublin is also famous for all the writers it produced, none more important the James Joyce:

JJoyce

Here’s that picture of Mike telling James Joyce he’s a pretty okay writer.

Then it was on to London.

London Tower Snow

This is what London looked like most of the time – cold and menacing. This is the kind of weather we saw most of our stay – snowy and cold. In fact it shut down the airport just after we arrived. We did our best to stay warm, but there was a lot of shivering going on.

London is of course famous for it’s musical theater, so we had to get some tickets for something. Luckily, this show was in town:

Palace Theater

Yeah, Singing’ in the Snow would have been a more accurate title. We found a half-price ticket booth and scooped up a pair of discount tickets, and, come showtime:

InsidePalaceThese were our seats. They sold oxygen at the concession stand. You can see the stage down there in the corner, somewhere.

The show was fantastic! It rained on the stage and the dancers took glee in splashing the front rows! (We weren’t in any danger of getting wet.)

Buckingham PalaceHere we are at Buckingham Palace, far from the massive crowd that had gathered to await the changing of the guard. As you can see, the Queen was not available to receive our visit, so we had to get our own coffee.

Akasha got a good chuckle that the Royal band was playing Dancing Queen during the changing of the guard ceremony.

Overall it was a wonderful stay, and then got we down to the business of the job fair. For three days Akasha, trooper and thrill-seeker, braved the crowds and elbows of six hundred other candidates to look for our next adventure. Long story short, we are going to be moving come next August, to Bilkent Laboratory and International School, just outside Ankara, Turkey. Hooray! I’m pretty sure that probably deserves a post of its own.

Sorry Mike, you missed one of the most important parts of our trip – the food! We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Korea has great Korean food.  If you want non- Korean food you’d better lower your expectations.

We ate well on this trip.  Our Dublin guest house, The Celtic Guest House, was fantastic.  They provided a full English breakfast and we ate like kings!  Their bacon was thick cut and delicious. Even better was the bistro next door, Le Bon Crubeen.  We like to try a variety of restaurants when we travel, but the food here was so good and affordable that we kept coming back.  Their head bartender had a warm personality that made us feel like we were back at Sen Yai Sen Lek chilling with Nicole.

One of our first meals in London was Ethiopian at Addis Restaraunt near King’s Cross.  Their Selata Aswad and Misser Wot were perfect and their Injira was moist and fluffy.

Our last week in London was my most stressful.  The Search Associates International Job Fair was worth the time, but it was a 3 day long 8 hour a day interview based job fair and I was on edge all day.  It was great to return to our motel neighborhood each night for r & r.

Two of our favorite places in Fulham were Chaam Thai and the Cock Tavern.  Chaam Thai was cozy, and relaxing and after a long day of interviewing it was so nice to enjoy a big bowl of Tom Yam and a spicy plate of Naam Prik Noom.  The staff at the Cock Tavern were super friendly, they had a great sampler menu and amazing beers.  Our last night in London we celebrated my job offer with a pub quiz.  The host was hilarious and teased us for not getting any of the answers.  We came in 2nd to last place, but had a great time.

Well, here’s hoping our next post is a little quicker coming than this one. We have about 50 days left in Korea, so we hope to pack in a few more baseball games and weekend outings. Then it’s back to the States for a few months before our new adventure begins. See you soon, America! See you soon, Turkey!

Chuseok Road Trip Time!

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A couple of weeks ago (Spet 29 – Oct 3) we had a 5 day holiday to celebrate the harvest festival of Chuseok, and Korea’s National Foundation Day. So, what better way to celebrate Korean holidays than with an American tradition: Roadtrip!!! After much debate, the three of us (Mike, Akasha, and Remi) set out to see the sites of the east.  We had a few items we wanted to see and friends we wanted to visit, but no set agenda.  Our goal was to drive a bit (about 3 hours a day), sleep on isolated pagodas, see northern and eastern Korea, hike mountains, go to the beach and see a few festivals.  We did it and it was by far, one of our best vacations ever!

Our beautiful pagoda

Day 1 This was a Friday, so we had to work till 5 pm, at which point we finished packing the car, grabbed a quick dinner at the local Kimbop Nara and hit the road at 6!  We went a bit north first, and traffic was good until we got to Gwangju, where we hit some serious Chuseok traffic. Chuseok traffic can be paralyzing, turning two hour drives into nine-hour odysseys, but for the most part, we got lucky. A few minutes past Gwangu, we found our dream pagoda just around a sharp bend on a mountain road not far from the small town off of Namwon. It was around 9:30, and even in the dark it was obvious that we were going to wake up to a beautiful view of Jirisan.  We slept with the moonlight pouring through the tent.

 

Day 2 We woke up to a beautiful view of the valley leading to Jirisan national park. After rousing ourselves, we hiked for an hour giving Remi a stretch before heading out on the road.  We didn’t get very far because I (Akasha) was beckoned by a mural of my favorite Korean children’s book, Puppy Poo.

The first mural panel of my favorite Korean children’s book.

We walked along the streeets of Udang, also known as ‘the cutest town ever.’  It was covered in murals.  We poked into someone’s home business, watched them make rice cakes, and snuck pictures of their garden.  Then we  pushed on till we stumbled on to a nice little farmer’s market.  Here we found whole fried chickens, sompyeong candy (a Chuseok specialty) and fish, fish, fish. Finally, just past noon, we found a landmark that was on the map: Haeinsa Temple, one of the oldest and most important Buddhist temples in Korea.

murals in Haeinsa

Nestled among the peaks of the Gaya mountains, Haeinsa was founded in 802 by two Chinese brothers. There are over ninety buildings on several levels, which makes for peaceful walking and beautiful views. It also has the Koreana Triptika, a collection of several thousand wood blocks that make up an entire set of Buddhist scriptures. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and amazing. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but we did get a print.

Finally, we met our friend Lisa in Andong, saw a bit of the festival, and had a dinner of Kim Chi Chi Ge. Then we drove out of town to find a nice pagoda by the reservoir. It was a beautiful campsite, but the night was cold.

Day 3 Once again we awoke to a beautiful morning, dripping in dew, the mountain valley cloaked in fog. We broke camp, fed the hound, and went into town to meet Lisa for some coffee at a great cafe in her neighborhood. Next we went to the Andong Mask Festival.

Misty morning pagoda

Andong has the reputation of being a very traditionally Korean city, and Mask dances are part of Korea’s traditional entertainment. They have also expanded the festival to include international dancers and masks, so there’s a lot of cultural knowledge there. There’s also tons of food and activities (like eating shwarma!).  We met up with some of our friends.  Akasha and friends  made a mask in one of the tents, and then we visited a booth that had traditional wedding garments. Here, they dressed us up in hanboks. Mine (Mike’s) was a simple affair, but Akasha had to dress in about four layers, which took almost ten minutes.

Finally, they took our picture as if we were being married in the traditional Korean way, which involves bowing to each other, handing over chickens, kissing with dates, and numerous stiff formal poses. It would have been very romantic, if not for the dozens of Koreans crowding around the booth, all very amused to see a couple of foreigners being dressed for a wedding.

After leaving the festival, we drove across the mountains to the coast of the East Sea (internationally known as the Sea of Japan). We drove carefully through the narrow streets of some seaside towns, not finding any pagodas, until we found a campsite that had beautiful cabins for rent. Akasha met up with a principal from Daegu’s Dongbu Elementary School, who was incredibly helpful in booking us a cabin.

She also insisted we come to her cabin for dinner, where we met her husband, daughter and son, and her grandchildren. Our own cabin was an amazing furnished two story beauty just feet from the shore, and we slept well on the ondol (heated floor) bedding.

Day 4 In the morning we watched the sun rise over the ocean and enjoyed the amazing view.

Our road trip goal of the day was simple: The furthest point East on mainland South Korea. (Hey, we’d already been to the southernmost point.) Along the way, we impulse stopped at whatever looked interesting, and this morning we discovered a gem: The boyhood home of Korea’s current president, Li Myung-bak.

President Lee Myungbak’s childhood home

Li was actually born in Japan during the occupation, but after the war he came here to Deokseong-ri for part of his boyhood. They are very proud of Mr. Li here, and have put up several biographical plaques that extoll his hard work, intelligence, and determination.

We pushed on to Homigot, the easternmost point of Korea.  We walked along the port and ate sashimi on the pebble beach. Our next goal was Jinju and we decided to take a twisty county road instead of the straight expressway.  It was a beautiful twisty drive between mountains following a river to a dam.  It took a really long time and was inspiring.  My favorite rest stop included an ancient ice house, which was a large mound covering a place where they stored the ice below ground.  It had access to the creek to keep it cool and let it drain. It reminded me (Akasha, of course) of the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Belinda gets locked in the ice house.

After hours of driving  we stopped by the Jinju Lantern Festival, commemorating a battle in the Imjin War. This festival was amazing, hands down one of the biggest, most ambitioius festivals we’ve been to. The entire riverfront was lined with giant paper lanterns, and more lanterns were moored in the river.

The fortress on the hill was decorated with hundreds more lanterns of people in every possible activity: skating, playing games, getting married, or carrying the emperor, for example. At 8:00 there was a fireworks show, the loudest and closest to the grounds any of us had ever seen. Then we had dinner, strolled through the high school’s ‘wish tunnel,’ and by 11:00 we had to force ourselves to get in the car and go look for a pagoda.

Picking a pagoda late at night can be an adventure. It took us a while to get out of town, and even longer to find a nice quiet pagoda, and in the end we weren’t too picky, but did find a nice place in another valley by a lake. At first we thought it would be a nice, quiet night like the other pagoda, but then the dogs started barking. One dog started, then another, and soon their barks were echoing up one side of the valley and down the other echoing over the lake, and we realized there would be no sleep that night. It even got a little bit scary, and Remi was anxious with all the noise, and then there was a strange rustling/flopping sound in the grass around the pagoda. So we got out of the tent, ran like scared teenage girls into the car, drove down the road, and napped closer to town until dawn.

Day 5 

We woke up in the car and drove back to break down the tent. We soon discovered that our scary sound maker (ie: ghost) was the world’s cutest puppy who had escaped his collar, and his owner was one of the friendliest Ajjumas (older ladies) we have met in Korea. Nothing like the light of day for a little perspective.

Our goal for the day was to Oktoberfest at the German village in Namhae. Along the way we drove down to Sacheon, a gorgeous coastal-village, and stopped for breakfast. We took a series of side trips as we jigged and zagged our way to Goseong, home of the Dinosaur Museum and the World’s Dinosaur Expo.

I love big statues

We knew we wouldn’t be able to bring Remi to the museum, but we thought we could walk him along the coast and see the footprint fossils along the coast. Unfortuatly, the walkbridge along the coast was damaged (it looked like typhoon damage.)

We crossed over the bridge connecting Sacheon to Namhae on our way to the Namhae Oktoberfest.  I set my hopes too high for the Oktoberfest. We had hoped for lederhosen, spaetzle, and polkas. But there was only one brand of German beer.  There was one very dry sausage with some yellow mustard.  There was a lot of Korean food, especially dried squid.  There was also a LOT of Korean music.  We only heard Korean spoken and only heard Korean music.  “Gangnam Style,” the current uber-hit overplayed everywhere in Korea (and around the world, we hear), was played repeatedly, to the exasperation of those who came for some good German fun and were dying for a Beer Barrel Polka.  Heck, I would have  settled for an Edelweiss, which my elementary kids play on the recorder.

Marina where we camped

We spent the night in Namhae, on the beach, with a campfire. It was fantastic.  We shared a campfire with a sweet Korean couple from Busan who came down for the beer. It was a beautiful pebble beach with a cute tribute to the wind breaks we were camping in and how windbreaks protect villages. It was a beautiful night for sleeping, a bright moon, clear skies, waves lapping the shore, and crickets singing.

Day 6 Our only plan was to have fun driving home. In the morning we discovered the marina where we camped was beautiful and has an amazing little cafe.  We indulged with another waffle breakfast and coffee. Mike saved several dying starfish that were drying on the dock (that Remi would like to have eaten.)  We poked along Namhae’s scenic coastal drive for an hour. We had hoped to do more exploring, but I think we were explored out, so we jumped on the express way and were home by 3 for laundry and a nap.  It was a long 6 days.  It was an amazing 6 days.  I’d love to do it all over again!

This was the monster who drove us from our tent

A vacation home

Wow, that was a whirlwind trip.  I can’t even think of everything that happend.  It was a Fantastic F bomb of Friends, Food, and Family. We had wretched jetlag in Minnesota, and our friends who’ve done it agree: the jetlag is 750% worse going to the US than in coming to Korea.

The riverboat

First of all, we have a great visit with the family. We had plenty of time with Mike’s family, going to a Twins game (They lost), and on a riverboat cruise (it didn’t sink!) on the St. Croix to celebrate the publication of Mom’s book, which has been the results of years of hard work with her father’s memoirs. Congrats one more time, mom.

Just like old times

We also went out to the lake house for a fantastic barbecue. Mike got a long-awaited session behind the grill, flipping burgers and brats, and almost felt fully American for a while. Then, we sat back and drank a few beers while the boats raced on the lake. What a great relaxing day it was.

Cotton Candy attack

We also got to spend a bit of time with the Sweetpotato and my Corazone.  They are growing up so fast, it’s impossible.  The last time we saw Sweetpotato she was talking a bit but you really had to know what she was saying to understand her.  Now she is an eloquent and articulate 4 year old getting ready for pre-school.  Corazone was 6 months old when we left, but now she has a clear personality.  She loves animals, books, running, and is begining to talk.  Her first word was DOG!  She’s so classy.

Our friend Jenni was the hostess with the mostess.  We were so comfortable in her home. There’s no way we can thank her enough. She provided us with a bed so comfy, I kept looking for the pea. Her apartment was laced with MN products and WI beer to make us feel at home.  What a babe.

Speaking of FOOD, we had the best quick-tour of Minnesota quisine in our ten-day visit. Here’s a quick shout-out of the stops: Matt’s Bar, for Jucy Lucys. Kramarczyk’s Deli, both at Target Field and at their NE Minneapolis location. Drinks at Kieran’s Irish Pub and the 331. The NE Social, for a million bites. Victor’s 1959 Cafe for bistec cubano y cordaditos. And we couldn’t get by without a visit to the best Thai in Minneapolis, Sen Yai Sen Lek! Hey guys, thanks for the Mango and sticky rice, it’s unbelievable! I’m probably forgetting something, but there you go. Sea Salt at Minnehaha Falls! Wendys! Um, okay. I got a bit carried away…

Then, there was a whirlwind day at the State Fair! Thanks to Jenni, Buzzo, and Carson for their company. Also a big shout-out for Erik, Ari, Corazone and the Sweetpotato for coming out and showing us how modern kids still love the big giant slide! It was some mighty fine screaming! (Mike, you forgot how visiting I Like You at the fair made us feel like we’d never left.)

Corn feed!

And, later, Katie and David came for a corn feed and walk through the Eco building. In all we spent 12 hours poking around, eating pronto pups, meals on a stick, milkshakes, watching butter-head sculptures, and pretty much everything else you can cram into a 12 hour day at the fair.

Thanks to everyone who came out to visit us. We’ve settled back into Mokpo, where we just sat through Typhoon Bolaven, then tropical storm Tembin. You can watch footage of Mike walking to school through the storm on YouTube.

It was 24 hours of wind, rain, noise, and canceled school. Welcome back!

On a side note.  We were sad to leave MN, but happy to return to our neighborhood, Yeonsan Ju Gog.  Everywhere we went people asked us “Where has Remi been for the last 2 weeks?”  Man, that is one heck of a popular puppy.

We began and ended the trip up in Seoul/ Incheon so there are a couple of pictures from our trip to a 1,000 year old Buddhist temple, an junk art camp ground, and our first meal back in  Korea, seafood soup.

Palaces and Baseball: a weekend in Seoul

Well, we spent another weekend away, this time up in Seoul. We left the dog at our local vet’s, a very sweet man with a very nice shop, and headed north Friday night with the hopes of eating some western food and catching a couple of baseball games. We weren’t sure we’d be able to since Akasha had attempted to buy tickets on-line and discovered they were sold out. But, trusting to fate, we went on up anyway.

Deoksangong palace grounds

Our first night we stayed in a nice little motel near the train station, a sweet little find that only cost us around 30,000 won (25 USD). Rested up, we set out in the morning to find some lunch and visit temples. We walked through the Nangdaemun market and into the Deoksungong Palace, one of the five main palaces of old Seoul. This is a nicely wooded site with the typical low, one-story palaces with elaborately painted pagoda roofs.

Embassy street.

Also on the palace grounds is the National Museum of Contemproary Art, which was showing paintings of Lee In-sung, who was an important artist of the 1930’s. He was important for helping Korean artists transition from the old traditional forms of painting to the modern, western style, though under circumstances – the Japanese colonial period – that were no doubt very difficult, if not tragic.

Outside the palace grounds, we took a unique walking tour through the Jeong-dong area, a nice old neighborhood that was one of the first places opened up to the west in the late 1800’s. Here the first missionaries built churches, and the Russians and other foreign countries opened their first legations to what had been known as the Hermit kingdom. It’s still home to a few foreign embassies, and it’s a beautiful, hilly, almost meditative walk.

Mokdong Stadium

Then, we went to the ballpark! We’ve been trying to visit all 7 stadiums in Korea.  As of this trip we have 4/7!  Mokdong stadium is the smaller of the two stadiums in Seoul, where three teams host ball games. Mokdong is the home to the Nexen Heroes, and seats only around 18,000 people. Despite there being no tickets available on-line, we were able to get a couple of nice seats at the box office for 16,000w ($13)! We settled into the first base side only to discover that we’d picked the cheering section of the Hanwha Eagles, the visiting team. We decided to cheer for them anyway, and were rewarded with a win when, in the late innings, a pinch hitter stepped to the plate and drove a liner over the right field wall for a go-ahead home run. The crowd, unusually heavy with fans for the visiting team, went crazy.

Jamsil Stadium

The next night our friend Alice took us to a delicious Thai restaurant that made us homesick for Sen Yai Sen Lek and Joe. We went out to Jamsil stadium, which is the home stadium of Seoul’s other two teams, the LG Twins and the Doosan Bears. It is nearly twice the size of Mokdong at 30,000 seats, and is quite a bit louder. Tonight was the Bears turn to be home team, and the opponent was the club from Busan, the Lotte Giants. Despite Busan being on the other end of Korea, once again the visitors had a large, rowdy contingent on hand. For much of the first five innings, while Lotte belted out four early runs and Doosan remained hitless, the visitor’s crowd was in a frenzy while the home crowd seemed to have given up all hope. The final score was 7-1 Lotte. Once again, we’d brought in lousy luck for the home squad.

N Seoul Tower

That night we went to the Seoul Tower, the highest structure in the city. There’s a cable-car that takes you up to the base, but the line was long and we needed a hike, so up the stairs we went. It’s quite romantic, with a great view of the city spreading out below. There’s a tradition that couples in love bring a padlock and lock it to the fence, so over the years quite a few thousand padlock have built up. It’s kind of romantic, but also kind of heavy metal-looking, but mostly it’s a sweet tradition.

Mmm.. Pale Ale

From there, tired though we were, there was one more destination: Craftworks Tap House in Itaweon. This bar is one of the few brew-pubs in Korea, and one of the only places to find a good Pale Ale, which is one of my (Mike’s) favorite beers. So, we settled in, found a nice spot at the bar, and had a drink. Akasha ordered a Weiss beer, and we chatted with the bartender and waitress, in English. It felt for a while like we were home. They also poured some beer into growlers for us, and we carried them home to enjoy in Mokpo.

Well, that’s a brief summary of our trip up north. We’re back now and enjoying the more bucolic pleasures of Mokpo, but we’re looking forward to August, when we get to hop the Pacific and hang out in Minnesota for a few days. See you soon!

Nara, the 1st capital of Japan, and Kyoto, the 2nd

From Osaka, we went up to Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for several hundred years. The trip up there is amazingly simple, as there are several competing rail lines in Japan. So we had the choice of JR (the national line) or Hankyu, the regional private operator. We went up by the JR express, which was nice enough, and only took about 40 minutes to go the 35 miles north. This may seem slow, but when you consider the population density in Japan, the mountains, and the traffic invovled, it’s really quick.

Once in Kyoto we hopped on the subway and got up to the

Enjoying the hotel's common space.

region with our hotel. Once we came up from underground, Kyoto impressed us with its small-town feel. There were lots of wood-frame buildings, kind of like a ski village feel. Our hostel was located on the same street as a traditional, covered market, with fresh fish on display next to tofu and radishes, and kindly old merchants watching us warily as we dragged our suitcase down the narrow streets.

Finally, we got checked in to the Hostel Haruya, which was a charming, traditional old Japanese house with sliding screens, tatami floors, and a narrow, steep staircase that was best gone down backwards, like a ladder, to avoid falls and injury. Our host, like everyone else we met, was friendly and generous, always telling us the local sights, and how to get there.

We started out with a nice walk up

Rubbing Buddha's Belly

into the hills surrounding the Eastern edge of Kyoto. This random walking, like all walking in Kyoto, took us up into a temple grounds. This one happened to be under renovation, though the grounds were still beautifully landscaped. We passed through an old traditional village just below Murayama park, an area filled with narrow cobblestone streets, kind of a touristy area, with signs pointing out several sculptures whose bellies you could rub for luck. We tracked down several, and took our fill.

From there we wandered back into the city, stumbling onto one of the most famous districts in the city: Gion. This is where the greatest concentration of the traditional Geishas live and work.

Sushi chefs at work.

The Gion district has elegant lanes of reed screens, cobble streets,  and a bamboo lined creek.  There were a few  adult-looking storefronts, but there’s also a lot of good food in the area.

It was here that one night we found a place serving Paella from a chef who had trained in Spain. The next night we ate at a sushi place with a highly affluent-looking crowd, served by stern, older master sushi-cutters. On the third night, still hungry for more sushi, we found a Kaiten Sushi restaurant, where the sushi is put on a conveyor belt and led around a counter much like a toy train on a track, and you grab plates till either the conveyor belt is empty or you can’t stuff in any more. Each plate was 130 Yen ($1.60), which sounds like a good deal until we looked up and found the plates were stacked up to our chin. The sushi kept coming, but we were no match for it, and left stuffed and happy.

The next day we went to the Toji flea market. It was amazing.  It is in the Toji temple.  Beautiful.  We were walking along the aisles for two hours and we barely saw anything.  As the day progressed and  the crowds got thicker it started to rain.

rice drink at the flea market

Annoying, but we were amazed and stuck with it.  There were nick-knacks and tchotchkes, fabrics, yarn, snacks, paintings, clothes, plants, tools, anything and everything you could ever want.  I was on a mission.  There is very little fabric down in Mokpo.  And most of it is yucky rayon and polyester.  I was shopping for fabric.  I got some amazing silk pieces intended for making kimonos.  I wllll be making a skirt. I also bought two thin scarves that I will use as a belt.  They were made with hand dyed, hand spun silk.  Awesome!  Afterwords a traffic cop directed us to this fabulous noodle shop that looked like Sister Fun exploded all over it.  I had soba noodles with broth, green onions, and raw quail egg.  Mike had an enormous bowl of Udon.  I think we sat there for an hour people watching and decompressing from the crowds before we went to see more temples.

In Korea we are accustomed to people seeing us and shouting “waygookin” (foreigner!)

Koreans we found in Japan

So we were only a little surprised when we were walking through a quiet Japanese temple and we heard “Waygooken!”  I (Akasha) turned and saw five boys pointing at us.  I really wanted to point out that they were gaijin (Japanese for foreigner.) Turns out they attend the university in the biggest city near us.  They asked to take our picture, also common, and we took theirs.  The pose was “rock, scissors, paper!     

Nara
In between meals in Kyoto, we went to Nara, which was Japan’s very first capital, back in the day the feuding warlords gave way to an Emperor (710- 784 b.c). Legend has it that when the capital was established they prayed for God to come to Nara.  When they looked up they saw  a white deer bowing to them. They took that as a sign that God was present.  In respect for that deer, all deer are considered sacred, and are allowed to wander about the park freely. They sell little wafer cakes you can feed to the deer, the deer bow to you in exchange for a deer cake. They get very aggressive. Akasha bought some deer cakes, and for her trouble was butted (literally, on her butt) several times by pushy deer looking for handouts. (They kept lifting my dress up!  Freaks.)

A deer, asking for a snack. With his head.

There is a deer sanctuary in the park where deer are assisted with illness, delivery, and have their horns filed down.

Big Buddha at Nara

We were also lucky in finding a guide in Nara. At the train station’s information booth, we were told of a free guide service provided by the local YMCA. We snapped up the offer and for the next four hours were guided around Nara by a lovely woman named Yasuko, who teaches English at an immersion kindergarten.

We saw the two main Buddhist temples, one of which is the largest wooden building in the world, and houses a bronze Buddha which is several stories tall. Here, one of the support posts has a small tunnel carved into the base. It’s locally know as ‘Buddha’s nostril’ and, according to legend, anyone who crawls through it receives enlightenment in their next life. Mike decided to take the challenge, and after a few moments of panicked scrambling (the opening is about the same width as his shoulders), he made it through! So now he has enlightenment coming in his next life, which is, you know, better than never.

Shinto lanterns

With all that luck, we moved on to the third major site in the Nara park, the large Shinto shrine. Shinto and Buddhism are separate religions, but many Japanese overlap.  Our guide said that many  practice both, so shrines and temples are often kept together. The Shinto shrine we visited is a sharp contrast to the Budhist temple, which are set in fields. The Shinto shrine is set on the mountain side in the middle of an primeval forest. Also, they have collected over 2,000 stone and wooden lanterns over the years, and they stand alongside the wooded paths, often two or three deep. They are also mossy, and it gives the scene a peaceful, surreal feeling.

After our tour our brains were full.  There are so many things that we see all the time in Korea and have never understood that she explained.  She took us to a lovely restaurant where we prcessed everything we learned as we enjoyed a typical Nara meal of kakinohazushi, or salmon/ mackerel sushi wrapped in a cured persimmon leaf and a bowl of somen, or thin noodle soup

From there we returned to Osaka, which we covered in our previous post.

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