Gyeongju in the Winter

After a couple months of being in South Korea, I finally made it out to Gyeongju. I had planned to go in Fall to see the foliage, but ended up going there during the cold winter. Being up in the hills, it was a bit colder than elsewhere.

Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla dynasty, which ruled Korea from the 7th-9th centuries. Today, it is a small, rather sprawled city packed with various indoor and outdoor historical attractions.

The first stop in Gyeongju was the National Museum. This place is a good way to start a day in this historical city, as it will give you an outline of the different periods that have been excavated, and will show visitors some objects and explanations for the outdoor places they are about to see. The museum is divided into several different houses, and the outdoor part is a courtyard that also contains the oldest-known bell in Korea.

I liked this museum because it was focused and mainly about one thing, rather than being extended all over the place so it is impossible to take everything in. Many of the artifacts in this museum were from the burial tombs of kings, which gives you a good frame for when you go check that out later.

Buddhist art also makes up a big part of this museum, and one building contained an assortment of related statues and paintings.

Another great part of Gyeongju is Bulguksa Temple. Upon arrival, the outer area of it looks somewhat like a giant ship. Inside this temple complex, a few different houses are scattered throughout, each full of grand golden Buddha sculptures, candles and monks tending to their houses of worship.

Some of the artwork was very intricate, as you could look at what appeared to be a single drawing, and then get lost discovering the thousands of different little parts that make it up.

There were also some national images in this park. At this statue, Dabotap, my Korean friend pulled out a 10-won coin and showed me that it was imprinted on the back of it. Otherwise, I would have taken that for granted.

After Bulguksa, we drove down through the hills around a lake, and passed an amusement park with several nice hotels located nearby. Though a historical village, it also had a taste of the present.

I was also happy to find out the duck boats had made it to the lake in Gyeongju.

Part of the reason I enjoy traveling is the ability to learn about history and its relation to today. Even though none of this history is my own, and a town like this has nothing to do with my own ancestors, it is still an interesting component of my understanding of living in Korea and interacting with people, even in current times. Being from a country less than 250 years old, I find it fascinating to be able to step out and examine aspects of cultures that range back for thousands of years. Though the town today may contain the carefully-placed remnants of this ancient civilization sectioned into fenced parks and institutions, it is still powerful that this much has been carried through the years.

Hiking Shots Around Busan

South Korean land is all mountainous. Even in major cities, it is possible to step out of the development and into the forest. Of course these cities are very populated, so such places are made easily accessible to humans. There are interesting artifacts situated amongst the plant life as a result.

Some rusty barbed wire cluster.

Mineral spring water fountain.

Creek going down.

Ulsan Coast

I went to one beach in the city of Ulsan, called Ilsan beach, the first weekend I came to Korea, back in October. It was still more or less beach weather at that time. Ilsan beach is not in the main drag of Ulsan, which is more full of lights, department stores and places to eat or drink, but accessible via a bus route that takes you past a huge, industrial stretch of Hyundai factories and warehouses.

This beach is found downhill, and has a number of school children hanging out on Saturdays, and a bunch of families on folding chairs, set up to fish, on Sundays. Off in the water, you can see the huge, boxy industrial ships either getting ready to dock, or off to send their manufactured goods elsewhere. The only people really going into the water are little kids.

Even more interesting is the park next to the beach. You must walk up about a hundred concrete stairs to ascend to it. Once there, it is completely carved with paths and benches. They even set up wired megaphones attached to trees that play music while you are walking around. The best way to enjoy this park is to hike throughout, and then find a comfortable spot to admire the rock formations and sea.

This last weekend, I made it to Bugku,which is a northern coastal outskirt region of Ulsan. This time, I ventured there on the back of a scooter. This trek to this destination involved more freedom and access to viewing scenery of green hills and flat farmlands, but as it is December, it was also full of strong winds and numb limbs.

Upon arrival, this coastal part of Bukgu was a pleasant, simple little beach spot. The beach it self was full of round stones, so it is best to navigate using hiking boots. The crowd there was mostly families in wind-resistant jackets who drove down to check out the water, shiver, walk back to their cars, kick the sand off their shoes, hop in and drive away to a warmer place.

There was one specified wall of rock formations, plus a plaque of geological explanation that I fail to recall.

Bugku also featured also one lone fisher standing straight on an empty spot of the beach, trying to make his catch of the day in the icy, salty air and endless blue horizon.

Streets with Seoul

Ventured up to Seoul for the first time last weekend. Though the temperature dropped greatly in the northern latitude, the pace and surrounding action rose. I also had my first experience at a jimjilbang, which is a bath house/sauna. Here, you can also spend the night at one of these for really cheap. All of the men wear matching green slacks, and all of the women wear matching pink ones, and everyone chooses their spot along a clean, hot wood floor for a several-hour slumber. It felt like we were a bunch of lazy cats, people of all ages sprawled out on the same surface with no blankets or sheets.

The next day, we left the warm, light and comfortable jimjilbang and entered the streets in the middle hour of the morning, around 10:00 AM. We were greeted by grey skies and wet, slushy streets, with people bundled into their buttoned-up jackets, trying to reach their next indoor destination. It kind of felt like home this time of year in the Northeast, in the way it was something I didn’t miss.

After being lost on the subway for some time, and squeezing in between all sorts of different people to explore Seoul’s underworld, we finally made it to a giant market part of town. It features many huge complexes that are divided into levels of garments and accessories.

Outside of these heated and escalator-lined multi-story establishments, the surrounding streets and alleys are lined with all sorts of shops.

I thought the most interesting part of this cold consumer haven was the exotic animal and pet street. We got to witness a ferret fight within a cage, as well as several concentrations of hedgehogs within confined areas .

Some of the stores concentrate on reptiles, where you may see an aerial view of the finest shelled creatures.

Others stocked a variety of fish as well, where you can witness the tanks of slimy, colored scales.

Some stores sold chickens, although I’m not sure how a lifestyle in Seoul would allow chickens, as it seems everyone lives in apartments; I suppose they are for human consumption. It was here I also learned that people keep chipmunks as pets. Of course there were the usual cats and dogs as well.


Another mandatory trip from my region in South Korea is to Palgongsan Mountain. This destination is quite the interesting mix of nature and culture. Not getting much time off, it is a treat to have both aspects combined in one outing.

The transit trek there from the city has the potential be a bit long and complicated, but completely possible if you just follow the people dressed in hiking gear. Those comfortable with subway transfers and long public bus routes that involve yanking your arm while holding a pole and flinging into other passengers for a bit will find a fine reward of sitting down as this ride drives closer to the destination. One can then relax toward the end of this bus voyage and watch the city bustle dwindle down and release into the suburbs, where one can notice the reduction of building concentration as this vehicle gradually reaches the hills.

Palgongsan is hopping with an assortment of hikers of all ages. In the United States, it is rare to find grandmothers decked out in hiking clothes, navigating a steep hill, but here, it is pretty normal.

This hike involves hundreds of stairs carved out into a steep mountain slope, a very direct ascent. About every 20 minutes of hiking, you must rest and catch your breath, but at these breaks, you are rewarded with some strikingly epic Buddhist temple or statue, perhaps with some interesting music playing in the background. Other breaks involve Korean mothers handing out complimentary fruit to you, or monks standing to the side of the trail, consistently beating on a simple percussion instrument.

The top of the mountain seems a bit other-wordly. Personally, you are worn and heated and undergoing pleasant physical and mental sensations in your head and body. At this time, you are simultaneously greeted by a large, gray Buddha carved into the rock. Dozens of people are on mats, bowing in front of this sculpture or lighting candles.

Though likely cold and windy at this peak, you are immune and able to remove your top clothing layers from all of the workout warmth, and peer over the sides of the summit fences and try to make out the network of hazy hills.

Suseong Lake

I ventured to Suseong Lake in Daegu over the weekend. I followed my usual city exploration strategy of not really knowing what something is, and finding it via very long, extended routes on public transportation. There were a few different names for this particular location, like Suseong Lake or Suseong Park or Suseoung Mot, but we figured to get off the bus when the electronic screen read “Suseong Land.”

This lake is apparently a known spot for the fancy restaurants surrounding it. Though the lunch I had was pretty good, what I noticed most from this outing were the duck-shaped paddle boats.

There were many duck boats docked in duck boat rental stations. They were all very cute, but all looked like they had some sort of personal struggle or statement going on, with their innocent, similar faces.

Some were decapitated and bound by barbed wire chains.

Some just seemed neglected, perched up and away from their friends, though forced to smile.

Others looked content, feeling comfort sitting still in a line amongst their peers.

Apart from the duck boats, there were some live ducks and geese. They were doing what ducks and geese do in every lake, wait around in one area for food being thrown by humans, and then fight over it.

Though aside from all the animate and inanimate water fowl at this urban body of water, my favorite sight was how well this man’s hair matched his hood.

Fish Marketing

Last weekend, I made a last-minute trip to Busan. Fortunately in Korea, last-minute trips are all the more possible. Buses are very cheap and leave multiple times throughout the day. You can show up to a bus terminal pretty much whenever and get a ticket, watch some Korean TV and be on a bus in less than half an hour.

I’d have to say the most interesting thing about Busan was the fish markets, both the indoor and outdoor ones. They are located near the water, and the outdoor one has every sort of sea creature imaginable, taken out of their aquatic environment and put on display to gleam in the sun and look ready for human consumption. I’ve seen live eels in water buckets a few places, but at this market, they actually skin them alive, and then leave the pink skinned eel bodies out in dry buckets to slither around without their epidermis, having their vien-lined guts popping out.

I was surprised by unidentified creatures, and how interesting they looked in a line of similar shapes, sizes and colors.

As well as ones I knew, but had never seen so many out of water.

It was a very crowded market, where it is impossible not to be pushed, bumped and moved by individuals or groups of people. One has to keep the best balance, as the ground is wet and the last thing you’d want to do is be an unfortunate victim of toppling over into one of the complex fish displays.

The indoor part of this strange market dimension was more organized, full of geometrically-lined, color-coded tanks. The people that worked there all wore aprons and rubber boots. I saw some rubber boots for sale before I entered this fish market realm, for those who don’t want to risk the fishy wet foot possibility. I refrained from eating anything from this market. Though my taste sense was not stimulated, sight, smell, touch and sound had quite an adventure.

It’s Really Happening

So I received my visa number today, made an appointment at the Korean consulate in Seattle for 10:00 AM on Thursday.

I am arranging my transportation to Seattle, and my recruiter called me and told me to send her my visa confirmation so that they can research cheap flights to South Korea. So unless anything comes up between now and then, it is happening. These details are basically just a formality, from my understanding. I will be moving to South Korea to teach English for one year.

It is strange when things actually fall in place and happen. You have a plan, and it is executed, but between then and now, so much happens, and your perspective changes so much. But this is a broad statement that can be applied to anything.

I was pending on going to do this two years ago, but it was not the right time I suppose. I have memories of researching the EPIK public school program while I was working my first official ESL teacher job back in the Bronx in 2008. I didn’t wind up in Korea at that point, but in Southern California. And then Israel, then Egypt and Jordan. Then I moved to Portland, Oregon, for about a year and a half. I stayed put sometimes, working as a freelance writer or substitute teacher, but other times I ventured off, to Washington, to California, to Mexico, to Canada and back.

Right now I’m finishing packing up my room. It’s beginning to look less and less like my dwelling. My boyfriend already moved out.

I went to New York for a few days to drop off some of my informal clothes and pick up some warm weather/teacher clothes. Said bye to the city I was born for an indefinite period. Back here, I’m just tying up loose ends now, counting off the days, while taking care of the boring paper work and other errands.

I will miss Portland, I really will. I’ll miss riding my white Schwinn bike, which was the first bike I really learned how to ride with. I’ll miss the coffee, the air, the bridges, the concerts, the house I lived in, the cats in the streets, the 24 hour tacos and food carts, the creeps on the bus and the endless rose and vegetable gardens. I’ll miss my friends visiting me and going on adventures. I’ll miss my lifestyle. I’ll miss Oregon, the hot springs and the breezy coast and green forests and mountains. Maybe I’ll even miss the rain.

It is definitely time to move on. I’ve wanted to do this for a while. My contract is for one year, so I’ll certainly be there for that long. The future after that is uncertain, but I hope to determine some of that when I am there. I have many vague ideas, but nothing for sure. Right now, I’ll just hang out here in limbo and wait for things to work themselves out before I board the plane.