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

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!

FYI: International Drivers Permits

We were once told you can only get your American issued International Driver’s License (IDL) in the States, and can’t renew it if you’re already here. Like many things people say without proof, ‘they’ were wrong.  Here’s how we (legally) drive cars here in Korea without going home for the IDL:

Background information:
International Drivers Permits (IDP) are certificates of your holding a driver’s license in your home country. They are recognized by 70 countries worldwide, and provide you with the equivalent of that country’s license without the need to surrender yours or take tests to acquire a license in that country. This allows you to rent cars, buy cars, and take out insurance. More information on the treaty that created this recognition can be found at this Wikipedia page.

How to get one:

In the USA:
First, you need a driver’s license from your home state. If you’re in the US planning to move to or visit Korea, or any other member nation, you can get an IDP from any American Automobile Association (AAA) location. The cost is about 15 dollars, and all you need is your license and a couple of passport pictures. It took us 15 minutes to get ours.

Outside the USA:
If you’ve been living abroad for more than a year (as we have), your IDP has expired. How to get a new one without a long plane ride? Internet to the rescue! I renewed my permit using a form downloaded from the National Automobile Club, at this website: http://www.thenac.com/idp_faqs.htm I downloaded the form, filled it out, and sent it back with passport pictures. They charge a large fee (70 dollars US) to ship it overseas, so to avoid this, put a friend’s name on the application and have them ship it to you.

You need to send a signed photocopy of your US license, two passport photos, and payment information (Check or credit card). To protect against fraud, they do not provide online applications. The envelope left Korea, was processed, the license was sent to my (Mike’s) dad’s house, he sent it to Korea regular shipping, and we had the license in hand 3 weeks later. Easy-peasy.

It was a really simple form that took a minute to fill out, and we had it back in 3 weeks.  It is really easy to get around in Korea with the bus/train service, but we can’t bring the dog on buses and it is a pain to bring him on the trains.  It is so much easier to go camping with a large dog when we rent a car.

Warning:
There are other websites online that will provide IDP’s, as a simple Google search will return. However, there are only two organizations endorsed by the US Department of state to issue the IDP: AAA and the National Auto Club. Beware imitations.

Other options:
You can also get a Korean driver’s license.  You need to go to the embassy in Seoul or Busan in person and have your US issued license verified.  Then you can take the document and the license to a Korean DMV and take the driver’s exam. That would have required several days off of work for us to go to Seoul  for document A and to Naju for the test.  All in all, the IDL was faster and has the same effect. Plus, we’re not sure what effect that has on getting your driver’s license back when you return to the states. You’d probably need to call your home state’s DMV for that information.

Whichever license you choose, there are some major differences in driving here. The DMV has a list of road signs that will make it easier to get where you’re going. Many destinations are written in Korean and English, but a lot of the signs are just in Korean. Drivers are a bit insane. And there are also numerous camera speed traps, so keep your foot light on the pedal, Speed Racer!

side note: we live in a port town and it is really easy to bring Remi on the ferry and go camping on the islands. Oh, and since we aren’t gonna put up a pic of our license, enjoy a pic of Remi on the ferry. Can’t go wrong with a dog picture!

Update! Looks like the government will be issuing IDLs at police stations now.

Day trip: Seawater Spa

Last weekend, we hooked up with Pedro Kim of Lonely Korea for a trip up the western coast that involved a buddhist temple, a drive along the sea, and a stop in a traditional Korean sauna.

We arrived in Gwangju just after ten a.m. to meet up with Pedro and the rest of the travelers. There were nine guests total, from places as varied as Missouri, Nova Scotia, and North Carolina. We left Gwangju and headed west, towards the coastal region of Yeongwang-eup and Bepseongpo temple. This is where Buddhism was introduced from India to the ancient Baekje kingdom, in the 6th century. The area is secluded and remote; Pedro parked the van in an empty lot, and we walked past a modest house where dogs were play-fighting over a chunk of squid near the shore. Fish had been tied up in yellow twine and hung to dry in large masses, mouths gaping, eyes staring at the sea from where they’d been taken.

A wave of fish

The view from the temple

The temple was up and over a low rise, standing on a hill overlooking a bowl of smaller structures, facing a wide estuary and mountains in the distance. Truly a spot to sit and contemplate history, and the future. The architecture is notably Indian, and not very similar to the Korean temples we’ve been at except for the elaborately painted pagodas in bright colors.

We took a drive along the coast, and though it was foggy the coastline was lovely, and wavey, which we haven’t seen in Mokpo, where the thousand islands dampen waves long before they reach our shores. Pedro took us to a secluded spot, where we had a waffle and coffee in a cafe that was done up in Korean Christmas style. Then, we headed down to the spa.

The sauna wasn't much from the outside.

Korean seawater spas are different from what we’ve experience before in what are called Jimjaebangs. Those are more like standard hot-tubs and saunas, but the sewater spa is a different experience entirely. Here, we changed into spa clothes in a small room with cedar lockers, then walked into a small room with two cut-out holes in the floors where the water was kept. There was barely enough room between the walls and the holes for one person to sit comfortably, but all ten of us managed to squeeze in.

On top of the water was a bag of fragrant sticks, and a jute mat. We were warned – don’t go in the water; it’s an extremely hot 80 c. The room itself was not much warmer than the outside temperature, which was in the low sixties. And, unfortunately, it was too humid and wet for us to bring in any cameras, so my description will have to do.

As soon as we’d settled in, an attendant brought in a shovel loaded with white-hot stones. He carried them carefully across our outstretched legs, then dropped them into the pools. The white-hot rocks hit the seawater in a spray of steam that immediately gathered in the room, a dense fog that blocked our vision completely. Then they brought in more hot rocks; four shovels full for each tub, and we sat in the dense fog as the room heated up.

Eventually, the water cooled to below boiling, and it was at this point that the magic of the spa experience began. Pedro showed us the way: Dip a towel into the incredibly hot water, squeeze it out, and when you can stand to touch it, wrap it over a partner’s shoulders. The heat, barely where you can stand it, immediately sinks into your muscles, loosening your muscles and relaxing them at the same time as the steam is cleansing your lungs. It was very calming, especially with the herbs that had been put in the water beforehand.

We stayed in the sauna for about two hours, repeatedly applying the hot water towels to ourselves, and as time passed the water cooled, lessening the need to cool off the towels before wrapping our legs, or arms, or heads, in the salty water. Eventually, we soaked our feet in the water, and then, pruny and satisfied, and feeling a bit like salted dried fish, we changed back into street clothes and went back into the cool, cloudy day.

A visit to Seoul

They call him "Chopstick Jim"

A few weeks ago, my (Mike’s) dad came to visit. Dad’s a pretty lively guy, so I thought it would be nice to go up and have him help me take a look around Seoul, Korea’s lively, super-populated capital city.

My first challenge was finding a nice neighborhood in the massive sprawl. Something nice but not too expensive, something exciting but not a 24-7 party. Dad likes adventure, but he’s not much for disco. After consulting one of my favorite websites for travel, hostelworld.com, I found a place called The Golden Pond, near the Hwaewa metro station, on the northeastern edge of downtown.

On arriving, I was pleased to find a quaint little neighborhood not unlike what I’d left in Mokpo. I’d been expecting a shoulder-to-shoulder madhouse from the pages of a National Geographic article on global overpopulation. But the neighborhood up there has a distinct small-town feel, and it’s a bit edgy and young, tucked as it is between two universities. Dad had found it first, of course – he’s intrepid and never fails in a travel challenge –  and when I found him he had settled in to the bed and was working a sudoko puzzle. After a brief hello, and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to conquer Seoul.

In the morning we ate at the Dunkin Donuts. Yes, Dunkin Donuts are everywhere in Korea. They serve a nice cup of coffee – (all espresso, though, no drip coffee. Drip coffee is an American tradition that never caught on outside North America) – but the donut selection is not quite the same as America. They have bagels, a couple of chocolate donuts, but the rest of their display case is filled with things like grapefruit chewisties, glutinous rice snacks, and bean-paste filled things. Eatyourkimchi.com has a nice run-down, if you’re interested in more details.

Then we headed out to see a couple of the five great palaces of the Joseon dynasty. First up was Changyeong Palace, which was a secondary palace of the ruling dynasty until a fire destroyed the principle royal residence in the 1590’s. Being great adventurers, we tried the first gate we found, which turned out to be a service entrance, and as we began to admire the beauty of the grounds, we were chased down by a nice woman from the back office and told to leave. Chastened, we went down the road, and paid the entrance fee (about 2 dollars) and walked in the main gate.

This brought us to the main palace grounds, which are a rectangle divided into a series of courtyards by a succession of large gates, with a central corridor lined with markers like small headstones. These large, football-field sized spaces eventually lead into the large pagoda-styled building that hosts a relatively modest throne. Outside the palace walls are some more residencies, and beyond that, through a

A reflective pond near Changyeong palace

peaceful grove of trees, right near where we’d tried to sneak in, lay a small lake with an island, lined by electric lanterns that at night would have been a beautiful, romantic place for the royals and their coterie to gather, drink, and write the poetry that was considered essential for the ruling class in those days.

Down the road was Gyongbuk palace, known to all English teachers who use the national curriculum as the star of chapter 5 in the text book – Where’s Gyongbuk-gong?

Changing of the Guard

We arrived at the exact time they were doing the symbolic changing of the guards. A colorful progression of men in shiny silks walked across the yard accompanied by the beating of drums and the sounds of long pipe-style instruments that reminded me, for their wavery droning, of bagpipes that had been removed from the bag and used as solo instruments. But they still had a distinctive Asian sound as well, a sound designed to carry up into the village and up the mountains. The soldiers carried long flags on their backs and solemn faces. It was an impressive display for the hundreds of tourists lining the central walkway that led from the main gate through a large dusty courtyard to the  inner gate that led to the palace grounds themselves. On the one side we could see the tall blue buildings of modern Seoul, while to the back stood the mountains that provided ancient Seoul with it defense.
Inside, we mingled with the tourists and hordes of local

Middle School kids asking for help.

school kids on field trips. Korean school kids act funny around tourists. They are encouraged to talk to foreigners, first of all. Which meant that the average foreigner was approached perhaps a dozen times by kids, whose minimal English skills didn’t lead to much of a conversation. Your typical question would be: Hello. Where are you from? Do you like Kimchi?

Their simple questions were often baffled by Dad’s more complicated, above elementary school grade answers. Where are you from? They asked, and he’d say something like, “Well, I call Minnesota home – have you heard of the Twins?” They were sports about it, though – giggling their schoolkid giggles, then running off to their group, and then, unfazed, off to talk to more foreigners later.

Straight south of Gyoengbuk Palace is the Great South Gate, which was a huge stone fortress from the days when Seoul needed defending. A few years ago, it was burned to the ground by an arsonist, and is now a large, tented construction site as it’s being rebuilt. But just above where the Great South Gate used to stand is the neighborhood dominated by Namdaemun markets, nearly a square mile of shops delivering everything from t-shirts and suits to cameras, pig’s feet and red bean waffle fish. It’s a staggering display of consumption that puts the Mall of America to shame.

Market stalls between the market stalls

Of course, we visited many other places: The National Museum, the Folk Museum, the Electronics Village near Yongsan station, Jogyesa temple, and, I would estimate, 50 to 100 camera stores that appeared around nearly every corner and the top floor of the Yongsan train station.

We even went up to Itaewon, infamous home of all foreign activity in Seoul. For those of you who don’t know, here’s a Korean pop song and video that touches on what the Itawon neighborhood means in the Korean consciousness:

I should say it wasn’t quite that crazy, though it was crowded, and filled with more foreigners than I’d ever seen in one place in Korea. I might not have even gone, but for one of my primary quests in coming to Seoul: a decent hamburger. I’m not sure Dad appreciated this quest, as he’d only been away from America for about 24 hours, but I’d been here about six months by now, and my cheeseburger blood levels were dangerously low. Dad understands this, and accompanied my humor like the excellent co-traveler he’s been on many an occasion.

So we wandered streets crowded with non-Korean faces, shopped for English language books, and found a nice Irish pub called the Wolfhound. Inside the Wolfhound, we had cheeseburgers and Guinness (well, I had the Guinness, dad was happy with water). It was the best burger I’ve had in Asia, by far! On the TV, a rugby match featuring England and France, which held the crowd entranced. It was a nice bit of home.

The next morning, we re-visited the Dunkin Donuts, headed for the KTX train station, and in a few hours were in Mokpo, where Dad continued his adventure!

Motorcycling in Jeollanamdo: An introduction

So a couple of months ago, I (Mike) bought a motorcycle. I know, I said I probably wouldn’t. When we first moved here, the first thing we noticed was how horrible the traffic was. Nobody was a very polite driver. Cabs and scooters habitually ran red lights, and no driver had the slightest concept of personal space. I didn’t know what the roads were like outside the city, and the hazards of owning a motorbike seemed too great.

Well, things change pretty quick in Korea. We got to know quite a few foreigners with scooters and motorbikes. None of them have been hurt or knows anyone who’s been in an accident on two wheels. This may mean that traffic wasn’t as bad as we thought, though it also mean that like spicy food, bad traffic is an acquired taste. Bikes are relatively cheap, and off-street parking is abundant. On-street parking is abundant too, for that matter, and neither Akasha or I have seen a single parking meter in the whole country.

So I took the plunge a few weeks ago. A fellow ex-pat, a guy named Tim, from England, was selling off his ‘classic’ Hyosung Mirage. The Mirage is a cruiser style bike, with a low seat and wide handlbars. Sort of like a Harley, if you squint really hard and have no idea what a Harley looks like.

Motor-heads, you can read on: the rest of you may want to skip a paragraph. Okay. Much like in Minnesota, there’s a limit to the engine size for un-endorsed motorcyclists. In Minnesota, the limit is 50cc, which basically limits the bike to around 40 mph. In Korea, that size is a relatively whopping 125cc. That’s not huge, but let’s remember South Korea, like Japan, is heaven for small motor companies. Like Honda, which puts motors into everything from chainsaws to diesel trains, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Hyosung in Korea keep engineers up all hours working on ways to wring a few more micro-horsepower from these little 125 cc engine. Thus, my bike, with a limited power supply, can comfortably cruise at around 90 Kilometers per hour (a Carter-era approved 55 MPH).

Me on my new ride

My bike is also a charming old gentleman. We aren’t sure how old it is – at least 10, maybe 15 years old – but the local mechanic can name the last five Waygookin (foreigners) who have had it in their possession. It’s got a maroon colored tank weathered to a dull patina which matches the rust coating the rearview mirror stalks and the gear-shift rods under the brakes. I’ve taken to calling him Rusty.

A week ago, we took Rusty out to Haenam so Akasha could hang out with some girlfriends and watch Glee. (That’s a post for her to write). Rusty started right up, and we started into traffic, which true to form hasn’t been as bad as we feared. We have had a few close-calls, though it was more a matter of Asian perspectives on personal space than it was outright rudeness or poor driving. The first part of getting to Haename is getting through Mokpo. After that, there’s a nice bridge that leads across the bay, and the mountains in the distance start coming closer.

The roads were beautiful, and the sun was shining. We drove out in a convoy, led by a small gold car, a Daewoo Matiz. I followed with Akasha on the back, and behind us another friend rode her sportbike. Once past the industrial zone on the other side of the bridge, traffic thinned out, and we were able to enjoy the road. They are all well maintained, and despite the mountains in the region there isn’t a lot of heavy climbing that my bike can’t handle.

And it is quite beautiful. The mountains in the distant are green and rugged, and they recede in layers of deepening green until the furthest mountains, also the tallest, are deepened to almost black. Below us, the valley has been flatted by years of cultivation, and rice paddies stretch out to the base of the foothills miles away. This was one of the last warm weekends, and I’m afraid that it’s going to get too cold pretty fast, too cold to enjoy long trips soon. But there are dozens of small islands off our coast that we want to explore as well.

The ride to Haenam takes a little over an hour, and

In my action gear.

we were there just as the bike’s poor padding was taking its toll on my butt. (My fault for getting old, and also for not riding enough to get calluses.) So we got out at our friends apartment complex and stretched in the sun. Out there, there aren’t as many foreigners, so kids stood around to gawk at the westerners, and point fingers, and we good-naturedly asked every kid how they were, which for elementary school kids, is about all the conversation they can handle.

Then it was time for me to head back. I headed west, to the coast, to check on a festival that was taking place out there. Immediately, I regretted it. This was route 18, a much higher road, that was more exposed to the heavy winds coming in from the sea. And I hadn’t dressed for the weather, so I spent half an hour shivering in the wind, and when I arrived in Jindo, my hands were numb and I was in no mood for exploration. And the festival proved to be more popular than I’d expected, so traffic was backed up across the bridge leading to the island. I turned north to Mokpo. This road was also cold, and though it was coastal, it was very industrial, and under a lot of construction, so it was more work than it was worth and I won’t bore you with the details.

To wrap it up, I got home cold but safe. It wasn’t the best ride, but I can say that overall the good rides have outnumbered the bad, and I hope the trend continues. I’ll keep you updated as events warrant.

The Haenam Circle Route on Google Maps: http://bit.ly/nf9laI