Saturday, October 19, 2013

Seoul - part I

The ferry from Ulleungo to the Korean mainland was much larger than the one that had brought us out. We were very glad that there were windows this time, although, again, there was no possibility of going outside. Before we arrived in Asia, we had been very excited for the numerous ferries that we had been planning to take. The last couple of ferry rides, though, had been a bit rough and we arrived on the mainland very glad to be on firm ground and very nervous about the 18 hour ferry ride that we were planning to take to China in a few days. Daunted, we did some research later that night about flying instead, and we were surprised to find out that the price was the same. We decided to book the flight immediately, and since that would give us a few days of extra time, we made an exciting plan to add Hong Kong to our itinerary.

Once we arrived in Seoul, we took the metro to our hostel. Televisions on the metro featured very graphic videos about what to do in case of a disaster, and each metro station had a cabinet full of gas masks in case war flares up with North Korea.

Our hostel was in the middle of the busy Dongdaemun district, renowned for its enormous shopping malls and all-night street market. After settling into our room, we ventured out to find some dinner and explore the neighbourhood. There were so many people on the sidewalks that we had to push and squeeze just to stay together.

Each night the sidewalks were packed with hundreds of tents offering food and an enormous variety of merchandise, and even more packed with the hoards of people trying somehow to look at that merchandise while being shoveded along by the crowd pressed against them on every side, sardine-style. These tents get set up at 9 pm and pack up at 3 am.

We managed to find a lane of food stalls. James went for ramen while Antonia decided to be adventurous with a kind of potato pasta, but taking a risk doesn't always pay off, and Emilie had to pick out the fish for her. We spent the rest of the evening wandering around the market in awe, trying not to get separated.

The next day was the only opportunity for James, Yann, and Emilie to take in the sights of Seoul before they would be cooped up in a math conference all week. (Did we fail to mention that the main purpose of this trip was a math conference? We swear that this was really a work trip the whole time!) So we decided to take in some mandatory tourist sights and walked along a lovely man-made stream in the centre of the city to get to Changgyeong Palace and then Changdeok Palace, both remnants of the grand Joseon dynasty and built in the 15th century.

At Changdeok, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exemplary palace architecture and landscaping, we took a guided tour from a very animated tour guide.

The grounds included the living quarters of the royal family and their court, set amongst a large park featuring many pavilions overlooking several ponds. We were told that this had been the perfect setting for kingly contemplation and courtly love.

The gardens were lovely, but it was such a hot day that we were tempted to jump into the ponds.

We stopped for an ice cream to refresh ourselves before the long walk back along the urban stream. We appreciated this lovely little piece of nature inside such a hot and crowded city; it is a popular gathering spot for people to cool their feet or to watch a public performance.

For dinner, Yann and Emilie sought out some Korean barbeque and we found a restaurant serving shabu, which is Japanese-style hot pot - strangely, we had not had any when we were actually in Japan. The kind staff helped us to cook our veggies and then our noodles.

The food was served in that order and there was absolutely no mixing allowed! The fresh noodles were delicious.

After dinner, we wandered around the market and this time ventured inside the malls, which looked like North American malls from the outside but inside were as crammed and confusing as the streets outside, and these ones were open till 5 am. After a short time, Antonia was very ready to leave the craziness behind and head back to the hostel, but once we got back, James decided that he wanted to buy some glasses and headed out into the fray by himself. James is much better built for crowds and all night shopping than Antonia, and he was totally in his element in Dongdaemun.

The next morning, the three mathematicians woke up early to head to their conference at the gigantic Coex mall.The week-long conference featured daily keynote speakers and workshops on mathematics pedagogy.

There was also a hall with games and activities aimed at getting kids interested in math.

Meanwhile, Antonia took great pleasure in going back to sleep and having a leisurely morning to herself, and then spent the morning doing research about tours of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and planning our last minute trip to Hong Kong, and enjoyed walking around the market in the afternoon, when  most of the tents aren't yet set up and things are a little more laid back. Once the conference-goers returned, we all headed back to the market for dinner. James stuck with his very spicy ramen and Antonia went with her tried and true favourite, chive pancakes, and everyone toasted the evening with a beer. It was all delicious.

Since James was already feeling bored by our enormous market open only till 3 am, we decided to hop on a metro and search for Namdaemun market, which was supposed to be open 24 hours. We had difficulty finding the market, which was strange considering the size of the market and the crowds that it should attract, and then we realized that we were simply too early. You see, it was only a little after 10 pm, and it was hardly worth it for the stalls to be open yet. We hung around for awhile and finally saw some shops beginning to open, but it was obvious that the real action would be starting much too late for us. And, oh yeah, it was a Monday. So we headed back to our market, and while Yann and Emilie headed to bed, James hadn't yet had his shopping fix, and we braved the crowds once again.

A couple of days earlier, James had discovered that his brand new Nikon lens, bought just weeks ago in Tokyo, wasn't focusing properly. So he left a little early from the conference the next day so that we could track down Seoul's Nikon Service Centre. We set out into frenetic downtown Seoul armed only with vague directions from the internet about how to get there. Unfortunately, the street numbers didn't appear to be sequential and after wandering around the same few blocks for an hour and a half, we still couldn't find it to save our lives. Our frustration was compounded by the crazy traffic and lack of pedestrian infrastructure; there was often no visible way to cross a street for quite a long distance. Each time we would ask for directions, we got conflicting advice. And it didn't help that we had made a commitment to meet Yann and Emilie at a rapidly approaching hour (if you know Antonia and her extreme discomfort with being late, you can imagine her panic at this point). About to give up, we decided to ask a taxi driver, who was just as puzzled as we were, vindicating us in our confusion, but called the phone number of the office to get directions. He then tried to relay the directions to us in Korean. We gave him blank, defeated looks and asked him just to take us there. He tried to save us the cab fare and indicated that we were really oh so close, but we had no confidence that we would actually succeed on our own. We hopped in the cab and he drove us around the corner. It was a bit humiliating, but at least we had arrived! 

More frustration ensued at the Nikon store, although the staff was very sweet and helpful. They told us at first that the repair would take 7 days (which we didn't have) and cost money (even though we had an international warranty). After some discussion (aided by charades), we explained our situation, and James worked his famous charm. Soon we left with an agreement from Nikon to fix our lens in three days for free.

But we weren't able to relax yet; while waiting at the Nikon store, we had learned that the National Folk Museum, where we had planned to meet with Yann and Emilie, was closed that day, so they were waiting for us without even anything to entertain them while they did so. Already late, we hopped in a taxi to the Gyeongbok Palace complex, which houses the National Folk Museum, and we asked an employee at the main gate where to find the museum. He answered, "Sorry, the museum is closed today." We replied, "We know, but we just need to know where the entrance is." He answered, "I'm sorry, you'll have to come back tomorrow to visit." We went back and forth like this several more times during which Antonia's panic at being late for Yann and Emilie kept rising. Finally we got the information and we ran around the palace gates and spotted Yann and Emilie.

We decided to take advantage of being downtown, and we wandered down a large boulevard that joins the palace and city hall. The boulevard is dotted with enormous statues of Korea's most renowned kings and makes for quite an interesting aesthetic surrounded by skyscrapers in the foreground and mountains in the distance.

We ate dinner at a little noodle restaurant and then came across a delightful statue installation in a nearby park.

To prove that what you see is no trick of the camera, here are Yann and Emilie next to the cleverly-proportioned statues.

We then found our way to the Changdong Theatre and bought tickets for that night's performance of Miso, a musical performed in traditional Korean style. Miso tells the story of star-crossed lovers in a dramatic, operatic style (with English subtitles, luckily) and showcases many traditional Korean performing arts, including drumming, fan dancing, beona (wherein dancers spin plates balanced on top of long poles) and our favourite, pungmul (wherein dancers spin long ribbons fastened to their hats). It was better than we had expected, and by the end of the night, we were lining up for cheesy fan pictures with the cast.

Our last excursion of the evening was a trip to the top of Namsun Seoul Tower, built at the city's highest point. Emilie wanted to take a cab up the hill, but Yann wanted to walk. It turns out that the climb up Seoul's highest peak was quite steep (who would have thought?), and as it had started to rain quite heavily, we had to take many slippery stone stairs to reach our destination, giving us deja vu about the last time we were hiking up steep slopes in the rain in Korea. 

When we eventually reached the tower, we got into the elevator that would take us to the top. The guide motioned to the ceiling of the elevator where a television screen made it appear as though we were rising through the night sky, but then breaking through the atmosphere and catapulting through space. When we got to the highest floor, we were rewarded with a lovely nighttime view of the river and the city lights, but also screens in the floor that could tell when we were stepping on them, and made it look as though the floor beneath us was crumbling away and we were free-falling to the ground. 

Even though we now realized that the proper way to make this excursion would have been to taxi up and walk down, Yann let us take the cable car back down, and we headed home, stopping on the way for ice cream from the convenience store next door. Emilie and Antonia decided to try an interesting cream soda/oreo combo flavour, which turned out to be - you guessed it! - very strange.

The next day, Antonia decided to crash the math conference and join the mathematicians for the end-of-the-day snacks. Figuring that James was by now a familiar face at the conference, Antonia pinned his I.D. badge to her shirt, with the picture facing in, and desperately hoped that no one would try to strike up a math conversation with her. 

After enjoying some sandwiches and beer, we all headed to yet another enormous mall to find an e-Sport competition. These video games are extremely popular in South Korea and are huge spectator sports. We tried to find a Starcraft competition, since it is a game that we had heard of, but settled for a League of Legends game that was being played that night. 

There are star players, hardcore fans, and a big industry built around broadcasting the matches. We found a large room packed with Koreans (we were the only tourists) - 95% male and 100% enthralled in the proceedings. Since it is a group "sport," each team was arranged on either side of the room in small glass rooms, with commentators situated under a jumbo-tron that displayed the game, as well pre- and post-game player interviews. 

The matches were being broadcast and the players were always swarmed by cameras and lit up by spotlights. We found seats and settled in to watch the lead-in to the next match; each player was introduced at length, followed by an analysis of his record and speculation about the coming match

A Korean team was about to take on a team made up of Americans, Britons, and Venezuelans. We matched the match but had no clue what was going on; it was funny to hear the whole crowd ooh and aah together at apparently critical points in the match, but which were imperceptible to us. We would just turn to each other and shrug in ignorance. 

One thing was clear: the Korean team destroyed the visiting team. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


We arrived at the island of Ulleungdo, 120 km off the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula, after a three and a half hour hydrofoil ferry ride. Unfortunately, unlike our last ferry, this ferry had no outdoor deck on which to stand and be blown about. In fact, there were not even any windows, so the ride was akin to sitting in a large waiting room while feeling a bit sea sick.

We had read that Ulleungdo was famous for two things: squid and pumpkin taffy. In fact, the entire island is decorated with cartoon pumpkin and squid mascots. Since the squid didn't interest us, we decided to buy some taffy as soon as we docked in the town of Dodong-ri, and it did not disappoint -  it was delicious. When we left the island a few days later, we were armed with bags of the stuff. As for the squid, we saw divers fishing for them off the coast, and every market and restaurant had live ones on display. They are actually pretty cute.

Although we usually don't reserve a room until we arrive at our destination, Ulleungdo is a popular summer vacation spot in South Korea, and we wanted to make sure that we wouldn't be stranded on the island without lodging when we arrived. So months before we left on our trip, Emilie had reserved what looked like the best deal on the island. We hired a taxi from the dock to take us to the nearby town of Jeodong-ri and our ominously-named hostel, Attack Camp. After wandering around for awhile in search of it, we finally found it, only to have the owner inform us that it was full. We replied that we had made a reservation months ago from Canada, and that we had even received a confirmation email just the day before. After much discussion, he realized that there had been a mix-up between himself and his daughter, who handles the internet reservations, and she called to apologize to us and offer a private mountain cabin for the night at no extra charge. Figuring we had hit the jackpot, we happily agreed and quickly headed to pick up some groceries before being driven up to the remote chalet to spend the night. The cabin was lovely, with several rooms and a kitchen, and we proceeded to have a very relaxing evening. The only down side was a few centipedes that we saw in the living room, but Emilie swiftly killed them, and we figured we were safe to head to bed. Moments later, we were awoken by the sound of Yann and Emilie swatting centipedes, first a few here and there, and then with an increasing urgency as they kept creeping out of the walls like in a nightmare. They had to change rooms to escape them. Luckily, we got away without any in our room, or at least any that we noticed, which sometimes has to be good enough. 

The following morning, we were awoken abruptly by an insistent knocking and a man pleading with us to open the door. It was our driver, who wanted to drive us back to Jeodong-ri immediately. So we rushed to get ready and decided that we would eat the breakfast that we had bought the night before once we were at Attack Camp, which should now have had our room ready. When we arrived at the hostel, we were very hungry and we decided to sit down at the communal dining table to eat. But as soon as we had done that, the owner entered to announce that he would be eating his breakfast before we could, so we would have to wait in our room until he was done. He led us to two separate rooms, one for the boys and one for the girls, that we would have to share with strangers. However, we had reserved a private room for all four of us. Apparently that was not available. While we sulked in our room waiting for the owner to allow us to eat our breakfast, we started to wonder if there was a better deal out there. James and Yann were appointed to go try to find another hostel, and after awhile they returned to report to the still-sequestered girls that sure enough, there were nice motels available at the same low price. We scurried out of Attack Camp without saying a word to the owner, and into a motel where we had two separate, private rooms with private bathrooms, air conditioning, TV and internet. We learned again that it never pays to book ahead of time. Finally we ate our breakfast and we were ready for our first full day on the island.

Our first adventure was an hour-long walk along the beautiful sea wall back to the town of Dodong-ri. The walking trail is built along the cliffs of the island and offers great views of the sea crashing against the rocks and the gorgeous turquoise water stretching across the Sea of Japan as far as the eye can see. 

From Dodong-ri, we took a taxi to the town of Sadong, where we planned to take a sight-seeing boat trip around the island. The first leg of the boat trip was very rocky and made all of us sea sick until we realized that it was better to be on top of the boat on the deck, in the fresh air. 

Poor Emilie was especially affected by the waves and stayed below to nap; she ended up sleeping away most of the ride. On the deck, we immediately noticed a large flock of seagulls that had followed the boat from shore and were flying right along with it. It was clear that they were familiar with this particular boat, and they tagged along for the entire ride around the island for the free snacks - people would buy chips on board to feed the seagulls, who would snatch them right out of their outstretched hands. 

The views of the island from the boat were beautiful. We gazed at the tall cliffs of the island and the interesting rock formations that jutted out of the sea.

When we had completed the circumference of the island after an hour and a half, the boat docked and we looked for a taxi at the terminal, but didn't see one immediately. We did spot a tour bus full of older Korean ladies, and Emilie decided to ask if they could take us back to Dodong-ri. Initially the driver turned us down, but some of the ladies must have convinced him otherwise, because we heard honking as we were walking away and when we turned around, he was waving us back. They made room for us where they could, but there weren't quite enough seats, so Emilie and Antonia had to sit on the console between the front seats, facing everyone else.

That afforded quite an amusing view once the driver popped in a cassette and suddenly the bus was full of ladies with perms and sun visors (the uniform of  most elderly Korean women) clapping, singing, and whooping along.

The oldest of the ladies directed everyone else by swinging a water bottle wildly from side to side. When the bus arrived in Dodong-ri, we were bid farewell by these very cute ladies and we set back towards Jeodong-ri along the beautiful sea wall. This time we took a slight detour to climb up a hilly, jungly trail to a lighthouse that provided excellent views of the sea.

Back in Jeodong-ri, we discovered an inexpensive and delicious pizza place that we would become very familiar with over the next few days.

The next morning, Yann and Emilie left early to start a hike to the summit of the island; we had chosen instead to see a few other sights. We started by taking a taxi to the Mineral Spring Park in Dodong-ri where we boarded a cable car that took us on a steep ascent over forested mountains. 

At the top, we followed a trail to a very high observation deck over the town of Dodong-ri, and then we followed another steep trail down into a valley and then up another peak for views over the sea.

After taking the cable car back down, we found the mineral spring that gives the park its name. This spring is reputed to have special healing powers, and so we decided to ignore our usual tourist safety protocol and try a sip. It tasted like a very mineral-y lemon-lime soda, complete with carbonation. We are proud that we were brave enough to drink out of this:

After a quick lunch of ramen from a convenience store, we hopped in another taxi to a large park closer to Jeodong-ri that boasts a famous waterfall. As we walked through the park toward the waterfall, we came acorss the Natural Air Conditioner Cave, which naturally remains at 4 degrees celsuis year-round. We stopped in to cool down and marvel at the geothermal phenomenon. 

Antonia is very cold.
We continued walking on the very pretty trail to the waterfall, and rested there to admire it for awhile.

We walked back to town and met Yann and Emilie at the motel. We were all tired from our day, but since rain was forecast for the next day, we decided to make the trip to Sunset Point Pavilion, lauded in our guidebook as the best place to see the sunset over the ocean. We boarded a bus to the town of Namyang and then wandered around until a local man pointed us toward an unmarked set of stairs that were almost completely grown over with brush. It became clear that the pavilion wasn't such a big draw anymore as we climbed the steep path, often having to forge our way through tall plants that had taken it over. We finally arrived at the pavilion, which indeed had a lovely view of the ocean and rocky cliffs, and, of course, we had it all to ourselves. But the sky was very hazy, and it seems that we hadn't timed things quite right, because the hazy sun was still very high in the sky.

We waited long enough to spot a rat in the grass next to us, and to be overrun with ants, and then we realized that we didn't particularly want to be going back down the overgrown path after the sun had set. So we hurried back down wielding long bamboo sticks to ferret out any rats or snakes on our path, since by then we were convinced that there was way too much untouched nature around us and it would be difficult for anyone to help us on this remote and abandoned trail. But we made it safely out of the bush and hopped on a bus back to Jeodong-ri.

For dinner, we hit up Pizza Jung for the second time. We were greeted again by the young man who seemed to be the pizza chef, waiter and delivery boy all in one, and who had been very welcoming to us the previous evening. James decided that we should splurge on the 'cheesy bite' crust this time. After we ordered, the chef/waiter used a translation app that read out in a robotic voice, "I will do cheesy bites as my service." It took us a very long time to decipher that he wanted to give us the cheesy bite crust for free. It was so sweet.

After our meal, we each used our translation apps back and forth to say, "Did you like the meal?" and "It was delicious." Everyone was delighted. Here is our super cute pizza boy:

The next day, the couples split up again because Yann and Emilie decided to take the cable car that we had taken the previous day, and we wanted to try the monorail along the north coast of the island. We took a bus to Taeha-ri and found the monorail, but unfortunately it was closed due to high winds. It was a bit stormy that day; in fact, ferries to and from the island were cancelled. We later learned that the cable car was also closed, so Yann and Emilie were out of luck, too. We crossed our fingers that the ferry would be running the next day so that we would be able to start our journey to Seoul.

Instead of taking the monorail, we walked along a sea wall and took in the stormy and tumultuous seas. 

We decided to follow some Korean tourists inland on what appeared to be a fairly unused path through the woods. The path quickly became difficult to navigate and soon our leaders decided to turn back. We decided to venture on and the path led to a pretty valley of flowers. Once out of the woods and on our walk back into town, we had to run from large waves that came crashing onto our platform.

Back in Jeodong-ri, we peeked into a cafe that we had been wondering about since we arrived, because it was reserved specifically for playing the ancient Chinese game of go. Unfortunately, no one was playing at the time - it must be cooler to play the board game at all hours of the night.

Finally, we stopped at a bakery to pick up a goodbye gift for our pizza boy, and ordered one last pizza to go, which we ate in our hotel room as we packed to leave for Seoul the next day. The last thing we did before boarding the ferry in the morning was to buy a snack from this kind baker on the docks of Jeodong-ri.