Monday, September 23, 2013

Daegu to Pohang

Our next major destination after Haeinsa was to be the island of Ulleungdo, but we decided to make a stop on the way in Daegu to check out its famous herbal medicine market. As usual, our first task upon arrival was to secure lodging for the night. We had no reservation, but our trusty travel guide informed us that one hostel in particular was the best value in town, so naturally we set out in search. The hunt proved to be more difficult than usual, and we misjudged the scale of the map, causing us to walk a long way in the heat with all of our bags, in a neighbourhood that didn't appear at first to have any hotels at all. It didn't help that there was no English signage, and we had to carefully scan the Hangul (Korean characters) for something that looked like the right name ("okay, we're looking for one that starts with the circle with a hat, and then the one that looks like a TV" - oh dear, we are ignorant tourists sometimes!).

Just before giving up, we finally found the correct building, with the circle and the TV and everything.   We were so relieved that it took us awhile to figure out why the nice lady at the front desk was asking us whether we wanted to sleep overnight or whether we needed the room for only an hour. Our inspection of the room confirmed that we had indeed stumbled upon one of Korea's famous "love motels." But it was surprisingly clean and nice and inexpensive, and perhaps our overheated exhaustion played a role in the decision, but we decided to stay.

We then ventured out for lunch, and we are ashamed to say that we headed straight for a Pizza Hut that we had spotted on the way to the motel. Yann and Emilie were much better travellers and ventured elsewhere to get authentic Korean food. But we were at a breaking point over cold bibimbap. The pizza was exactly like Canadian Pizza Hut pizza, except even more delicious because it came with a garlic butter dipping sauce. We quite enjoyed it.

We were ready to be more adventurous by dinner time, and we all headed out to find something among what we now realized, in the darkness that had descended by evening, was a neighbourhood full of love motels and bars all lit up in neon.
(This wasn't our motel - we would have been able to find this one.)
We avoided the dark alleys. We managed to find a little hole-in-the-wall that agreed to make us a vegetarian bibimbap, and this turned out to be one of the better ones, with lots of spicy red pepper sauce and, since we were now out of the mountains, lettuce, spinach and bean sprouts instead of those hearty "mountain vegetables."

After dinner, we were feeling adventurous enough to try to find our way to a movie theatre that played English movies. We piled into a taxi, taking advantage of the fact that taxis in Korea are very affordable - it cost about $6 to get all of us all the way across town. We could never have afforded to take a taxi anywhere in Japan. The only English movie playing was Spiderman, so that is what we saw.

The next morning we headed to the herbal medicine market early so that we would be able to see it before we had to check out of the motel. The market had been closed the day before, so this was our last chance. 

We peered into dozens of little shops with curiosities mostly in the categories of twigs, roots, and bark, plus lots of ginseng and reindeer antlers.

Since Antonia loves old and interesting (or not so interesting, in James' view) tins, she decided that she had to have one of the neat tins used to sell ginseng. She was willing to buy some ginseng just to get the tin, even though ginseng is not cheap. She and Emilie entered the store with the best tin display, and when the owner saw that they were primarily concerned with picking out their favourite tins, he offered an empty tin to each of them for free!

We then bid adieu to our love motel and headed to the bus station for the city of Pohang, which was the site of the ferry terminal that we needed to use to get to the island of Ulleungo. This time we headed straight for the ferry terminal before looking for a hostel because we needed to reserve tickets for the ferry the next day. The terminal was quite empty and we waited awhile before anyone came to the ticket counter to help us. When someone finally did, he took one look at the foreigners, exclaimed, "oh!," and promptly turned around and went straight back into the back room. It seems he had gone to find someone capable of speaking English. The second guy came out to greet us and Yann, Emilie and Antonia began asking about ferry tickets while James decided to sit this one out a short distance away. The poor ticket guy interrupted them and pointed at James and asked, "wait, do you speak Korean?" He had taken James for a Korean who was lazily letting his English-speaking friends do all the work. But he was out of luck, and he had to dust off his English. This was one in a long line of incidents in our travels that confirm that James would make an excellent international spy - wherever we go, locals assume that he is one of them, often with hilarious results.

Next we had to find a place to sleep, and the process was much like that in Daegu, because once again we got very turned around and had trouble matching the characters of the signs around us to the one of the Manstar Hotel, recommended by our guide. And once again, it turned out that this was a love motel, but by now we didn't even bat an eye. They are a decent and affordable option in Korea. The Manstar even offered us an upgrade to a room on the 7th floor with a view of the beach.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in our air-conditioned hotel rooms trying to escape the intense heat, and we ventured down to the lively beach and boardwalk area in the evening when it started to cool off. 

Our survey of restaurants along the beach yielded nothing suitable, at least for the vegetarians, because most restaurants specialized in fresh seafood, and one even had a moat running around the counter containing all kinds of sea creatures that patrons could just scoop out with their own little nets and plunk down to be fried up on the spot - Antonia's absolute nightmare! So we bought some ramen from the 7-11 and we ate at a picnic table on the boardwalk. As the sun set, everything around us became very neon. 

The buildings down the boardwalk and across the bay were all equipped with blinking neon lights, and the world's first ocean fountain, which we had admired in the daylight, was of course illuminated. 

We finished the evening with a lovely stroll down the boardwalk to take in all of the lights and people on the beautiful summer night.

Monday, September 9, 2013


We made our way from Busan to Haeinsa on a bumpy bus ride, eager to see the small town and its famous temple, which is one of three Jewel Temples in South Korea. After finding a hostel and settling in, we strolled around the quiet streets of Haeinsa and took in our first view of the temple in the twilight. It was lovely, and we were eager to return again the next day.

During dinner at our hostel that night, we all decided to try the mountain vegetable bibimbap (a dish of rice with vegetables and sometimes eggs, which James and Antonia ate almost daily while in South Korea), along with a spicy peanut noodle soup, and the seemingly dozens of banchan (small side dishes) that accompany every Korean meal. 

The soup was excellent; the bibimbap was cold and a bit bland. We read that in Korea, vegetarian food is often bland because if you're eating it in the first place, you're doing so to be moderate and humble. Plus, monks don't want to get their blood going with any garlic or spice. Some of the banchan was very good, like the acorn jelly. But very much of the banchan was either not vegetarian or fermented in the style of kimchi ('fermented' turned out not to be Antonia's favourite flavour). Suffice it to say that Korean cuisine was not our preferred cuisine of this trip - except for the green onion pancakes, which were amazing! The food would probably have been a lot more exciting overall had we been meat-eaters.

To unwind before bed, we watched a little TV. The language barrier was not a problem, as two of the thirteen channels carried math tutorials for students (well, Antonia still couldn't understand what was going on, but the language wasn't exactly the problem there). Apparently, since academics are so important for Korean children, parents often hire tutors to give their students an advantage. These math television programs were designed to bridge the gap between students whose parents can afford a lot of private tutoring, and those who can't. So now, every child can spend their free time learning more math! But seriously, it seems like a good initiative.

We made a plan to get up at 7 am the next day to hike around the temple, which is set at the base of a mountain that is reputed to offer beautiful views of the temple and its surroundings. We were eager to do the hike before the rest of the tourists, and while it was still relatively cool. So we psyched ourselves up: "Are we really going to leave at 7? We're going to do this, right? No sleeping in!" But it turned out that we had overestimated Emilie's enthusiasm, and at 7 am, she was more enthusiastic about a couple more hours of sleep. So we started our trek closer to 10 am, after a breakfast of juice and coffee, and Cream Clan cookies that we had found the night before at a grocery store.

We walked to the temple and began the 5 km climb up the mountain. It began with a very pretty path along a babbling brook, but then quickly turned into a steep, rocky ascent. 

(Along the way, we were pretty sure that we could spot twigs and leaves on the side of the path that had been part of our mountain vegetable bibimbap the night before). 

There were lots of stairs and makeshift stairs formed of uneven rocks that were steep enough that we had to climb with our hands as well as our feet. 

As we climbed further, we began to climb into mist, which became fog, which became clouds, which started to rain. We became drenched first in sweat from the climb, and then in the rain. To make matters worse, we kept thinking we should be at the summit very soon, only to turn a corner and see an even steeper set of craggy rocks to climb.  

James was not impressed and kept repeating, "Remind me why we're doing this, again?" Emilie and Antonia tried to assure him that we would climb above the clouds and be rewarded with an amazing view at the top, not quite believing it themselves, but needing to say something to keep everyone going. 

When we did arrive at the top, all we could see was a grey wall of fog in front of us. It wasn't completely without beauty, though - there were some interesting rock formations, and it was eerily pretty to watch the clouds and fog flowing past them. 

The way back down was wet and muddy and slippery and the rocks had punctured a hole in the sole of one of James' shoes. James denounced what he believed was the futility of our walk, and revoked everyone's privilege to drag him on any more hikes for the remainder of the trip (luckily, this didn't last too long).

After our hike, we visited the Haeinsa Temple more closely. 

The main hall was beautiful, although we weren't sure if the thin mustache is a good look for the Buddha - but in this area, he is always depicted with one.

Antonia decided to walk the labyrinth set up for walking meditation.

The most impressive sight at the temple was the Tripitaka Koreana, which is the collection of Buddhist scriptures and laws carved onto more than 80,000 wood blocks and are nearly one thousand years old. They are the oldest known intact version of the Buddhist canon in Hanja script, and are believed to contain no errors in their over 52 million characters. They are preserved in a lovely library and guarded at all times. As a souvenir, we bought an imprint of a copy of one of the blocks to take home.

Here is Antonia inside the library:

Fooled you! Since photographs are prohibited inside the library, we took pictures of ourselves in front of the handy 'photozone' outside.

Before leaving for our next destination in the morning, we stopped for breakfast at KFB. That's right, North America might have KFC, but it doesn't hold a candle to Korea's Famous Bread. We had walnut and red bean donuts with coffee - quite delicious! So perhaps we have been too hard on Korean cuisine. There were certainly some bright spots, but just way, way too much cold bibimbap for the vegetarians.