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Bamboo Forest

Following Kayla and my day of rest and errands, we decided to go to the Jungnokwon bamboo forest in Damyang. It’s about 45 minutes outside of Gwangju, the city we live in. We cabbed to the bus terminal and bought our tickets. Going to Damyang is only $2 and our bus never even got on the highway. We basically drove through Gwangju until we got to the next town over, Damyang. Unlike larger cities like Gwangju, Mokpo, and Seoul, the bus terminal here was basically a shed and comparable to the Wondo bus terminal.

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We got off and waited for a transfer bus to the Jungnokwon bamboo forest. This bus ride was only $1 and the ride was about 5 minutes up the road. Unlike the buses that take you between major cities in Korea this local Damyang bus was ancient and it appeared handmade, complete with rusted metal panels welded to the floor, possibly to cover places that were even more rusted underneath.

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The bus stop for the bamboo forest was next to a beautiful riverside park and a little stone footbridge connecting the two banks. Kayla and I walked along the riverbank watching Koreans escaping the summer heat under large shady trees. There was a fountain along the way with kids running through it getting wet and cooling off. The whole area felt very peaceful and not at all like the hustle and bustle of the big cities like Gwangju and Seoul that we were used to.

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Kayla and I crossed the stepping stone footbridge and entered the Bamboo forest.

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There were tons of Korean families enjoying the bamboo forest and taking photos. Several Korean TV shows had been filmed in the Bamboo forest and occasionally there were placards referencing various scenes and shows.

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A bit deeper into the bamboo forest, Kayla and I came across a model traditional Korean village with a few little stores and houses.

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I got the impression that certain times of the year re-enactors would demonstrate various traditional Korean trades, but no one was there when we visited so we were left to make our own assumptions.

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This village was really beautiful even if it was fake. There was a wooden bridge along the water where Koreans were feeding Koi and taking more photos. It was one of the most peaceful places I’ve been to in Korea so far.

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Further along our explorations of the Bamboo forest we came across a Buddhist temple. No one was there and all the doors were locked so Kayla and I wandered around the outside. I took some photos and we sat by a different pond and listened to the fountain before making our way back to the bus.

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Just before the footpath we’d taken to the bamboo forest we came across several outdoor food stands. Kayla and I stopped for some sweet pancakes stuffed with honey. They were incredibly delicious and only a dollar.

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Overall I had a really good time at the forest. I feel so at home in Korea. Occasionally I have to remind myself that I’m living in Korea. While everything around me is different so many things are also the same. Kids still love legos and playing in fountains. Families go on vacations. Everyone eats delicious pancakes. There are still grocery stores, coffee shops, and apartment buildings. In downtown Gwangju there are most of the same stores found in the states.

Oedaldo Island (외달도)

This weekend we went to Oedaldo Island for a weekend trip. When it comes to nature trips there are two general kinds in Korea, at least that I’ve observed: Island trips and Mountain trips. Korea isn’t that big and it’s really mountainous so whatever isn’t a mountain is often a beach or an island.

Both trips are fun in their own ways. Mountain trips are lots of hiking with gear and camping on the top of a mountain. You bring your own food, sleeping bag, or tent. Sometimes you can rent the equipment, but that requires a level of Korean that I do not have…yet.

Mokpo Seaside

Mokpo Seaside

Nicole and I opted for the latter, an island trip. We met up with my co-teachers, Kayla, Patrick, Will, and Ted at the bus terminal and took a bus to Mokpo, a port town on the west coast of South Korea. Mokpo is an important port city because it’s a great halfway point between China and Japan, so it gets a lot of commercial shipping traffic. For tourists though, Mokpo represents a gateway to many of Korea’s beautiful islands.

A bridge near Mokpo

A bridge near Mokpo

The Ferry to Oedaldo

From the bus terminal, we took a cab to the ferry terminal and boarded a ferry for Oedaldo. The ride to Mokpo from Gwangju is about an hour by bus then another hour on the ferry to Oedaldo island.

Ferry to Oedaldo

Ferry to Oedaldo

Our Minbok

Once we arrived, we set out to find our lodging. We were staying at a minbok, which is like a guesthouse. People rent rooms in minboks, which are usually part of someone’s house. Each room tends to be large and sparsely furnished, very sparsely, like no beds. Everyone sleeps in the same room on the ground on futon-like mats or thick blankets depending on the minbok. The advantage to minbok’s, aside from the fact that they are traditional, is that they are cheap, like $10 a night cheap if you get enough people into it. Our whole group comprised ten people, more would be joining later, so we spent next to nothing to sleep there. The downside is we shared one bathroom between all of us and basically spooned all night because there was that little room.

Peter sleeping in the Minbok Wardrobe

Peter sleeping in the Minbok Wardrobe

Island Lunch

Oedaldo is a very small island. You can circumnavigate it in under an hour. It has a small water park with lots of Koreans in full body swimsuits, a little village, and a beach and that’s about it. After we left the minbok, we went to a little restaurant to have some lunch. The restaurant was one of the highest points on the island with a little outdoor eating area so you could see out over the rest of the village from there. A lot of the other Korean patrons at the restaurant brought their own food and sort of “rented” space at the restaurant just using the tables to prepare their own food with a nice view to boot.

Lunch...all of the sides

Lunch…all of the sides for $6/person

After lunch, we went for a walk on this little path that wraps around the island. It was really beautiful. Along the path was the beach to the left and the mountain and forest to our right. Halfway around the island we came across a little lighthouse and stopped for some pics. The foliage and landscape of the island reminded me a lot of Maine, while the food, people, and architecture were very much Korean. It was a strange dichotomy.

From Lighthouse to Beach

From Lighthouse to Beach

The walking path we took led us to the beach where we spent the afternoon enjoying beverages by the water and floating in tubes. After a bit, the rest of our group who had taken a separate ferry joined us and we were all reunited. Nicole and I went for a short walk mid-afternoon and when we returned the tide had come in and the beach had disappeared, leaving only the concrete steps and picnic tables left over. Nicole and I hung out watching the waves and chatting while eating cheap ramen.

Oedaldo Lighthouse

Oedaldo Lighthouse (from left to right Will, Kayla, Patrick, Will)

That night we all returned to the place we ate lunch at, one of a handful of restaurants on the island. At this point I should explain a few things about Korean culture of the rest of the story won’t make sense.

Dinner “Service”

In Korea, there’s a custom called “service” where if you spend enough money at a shop, bar, restaurant, the proprietor will give you something for free or “for service”. Basically, this means “you’ve spent enough money here, you’re cool with me, enjoy”. At a bar, this often means free chips with your round of beers. At a restaurant, this can mean a free drink with your meal. One time I bought a whale shirt at a store and I got a t-shirt with sparrows on it for free.

The total number of people who had come with us to this restaurant was close to ten and we each had a meal there plus several beverages for the table so our total bill was close to $300, a king’s ransom by Korean standards and more food and drink than we could possibly imagine. Consequently, and partly because the restaurant owner was the daughter of the minbok owner, we received a free additional room at the minbok, a $100 value. Here’s to Korea.

After our several hour dinner, we wandered the island and sat by the water talking about life and English curriculum, the usual when English teachers get together. At the end of the night, everyone had forgotten about the bonus minbok room aside from Peter, our lovable Korean co-teacher, who had the bonus room to himself while the 9 of us shared the other room.

Second Weekend in Seoul: Color Me Rad II

Continued from Second Week in Seoul: Color Me Rad I

Breakfast

Nicole and I packed our bags at the hostel and got some breakfast at a local brunch place. Brunch isn’t too common in Korea, so most brunch places are in the foreign parts of town such as Itaewon. I got real buttermilk pancakes with thick cut bacon, and I mean thick, like bacon steak if that was a thing. This place had real delicious coffee as well, a welcome change from yesterday’s McDonalds. Coffee in Korea, and in most places outside of the US does not exist the way it does in the states. Most places have lattes, cappuccinos, and espresso, but rarely do they have traditional American coffee. I often order an Americano (espresso plus hot water).

Sunday in Itaewon is an immensely peaceful place if you’re up early enough anytime before noon. In the afternoon shoppers wander its streets eating international food and shopping in various boutiques. At night Itaewon becomes a crazy club district and its packed with people, Korean and foreign alike. 

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Bongeunsa Temple

After breakfast, Nicole and I caught a cab toBongeunsa Temple, a place even more tranquil than Itaewon on a sleepy Sunday morning. Bongeunsa Temple is a Buddhist temple dating back to 794. Its located close to the center of Seoul, ironically surrounded by shopping malls and some of the most expensive apartment buildings in Korea. We spent the afternoon wandering around the temple, observing its majestic beauty and instagraming its secrets.

Bongeunsa Temple

Bongeunsa Temple

I got the impression not many tourists westerners visit the temple. Nicole and I got a lot of curious looks as we wandered the temple and one gentleman stopped and spoke with us for about 15 minutes telling us about the temple’s history.

Bongeunsa Temple

Bongeunsa Temple

Convention Center

After leaving the temple, Nicole and I walked across the street to the convention center on the off chance something fun was happening. Indeed it was, there was a Korean children’s character licensing convention. I’m not 100% on what that means, but there were tons of children’s characters in costumes handing out autographs and taking photos. It was a madhouse. Nicole and I wanted to go into the convention and take photos, but there was an admission fee and it didn’t seem worth it since neither of us knew who any of the characters were.

Seven Luck Casino

The convention center is massive and it connects to a hotel & casino next door. That’s right, a Korean casino. Nicole and I had to go, and we were not disappointed. We had both expected a casino similar to one in the states where you can wander in off the Las Vegas strip in shorts and a t-shirt and gamble to your heart’s content, that was not quite the case here.

Nicole and I stroll in off the streets in Seoul in our shorts and t-shirts, because it’s 90 degrees with 100% humidity. Immediately we’re greeted by a staff of 5 or 6 Koreans in full suits. The small lobby is immaculate with crystal chandeliers and fountains. Clearly, we are underdressed, but we decided not to let that dissuade us from seeing this Korean casino. I greet the first gentleman in a suit and he asks for our passports. In Korea, you cannot go into a casino unless you are a foreigner. I believe Koreans are not allowed to gamble. After we get our passports back, we walk around the corner of the lobby and take an escalator up to a small gambling floor with maybe 50 slot machines and a few tables for poker and roulette. Everyone gambling in the casino looks Korean, which is odd since this should be foreigners only. I suspect that there is some way around this passport check or maybe they bribed the doorman.

Nicole and I aren’t gamblers so we mostly just look around until we spy in the corner, past the flashing lights and slot machines, a juice bar. That’s right, this casino has free juice, and by that I mean there are several pitchers of airplane-quality juice available to drink out of tiny paper cups. Nicole and I go over and start slamming back shots of juice with reckless abandonment. The fact that its cold and free almost makes up for how bad it is. I feel like whoever made this juice had never had real juice. Someone probably described juice to him and he said “oh yeah, I know what you mean” but really had no idea.

Juice Bar

Juice Bar

Nicole took a picture of me drinking free juice and several casino security guards came by and told us not to take photos. At that point, we’d seen everything we wanted to at the casino and decided to head back to Itaewon and gather our bags for the bus back.

4D Movie Experience

Nicole and I took the bus back to Gwangju and made it back early enough in the evening to see a 4D movie at the bus station. The Gwangju bus station has everything, tons of shops, restaurants, a department store, and a 4D movie theater. It’s awesome. In the 4D movie theater you get sprayed with smells, your seat shakes, you might get wet, and you occasionally get air blown on you. It’s just like a 4D ride at Disney but it’s a full-length movie in a theater.

4D Movie

4D Movie

Nicole and I saw Pacific Rim, a movie about giant transformer robots fighting giant monsters from an alternate universe. It’s probably the perfect movie to see in 4D because its so over the top. The movie itself wasn’t too bad. The action was massively epic, but the character development was nonexistent and I didn’t really care what happened to any of the people in the film.

If you think there are a lot of previews before movies in the states, don’t see movies in Korea. There were easily twice as many previews and general advertisements before the movie along with several warning screens about motion sickness. Overall the 4D experience was a lot of fun, but after the first hour or so I started to get tired of the 4D part and just wanted to watch the movie without being shaken or having air blown on me, but the gimmick was a fun one-time thing.

Second Weekend in Seoul: Color Me Rad I

This weekend was the weekend before Nicole’s birthday so we decided to go back to Seoul for some R and R. In this case, R and R meant running and resisting the urge to eat taco bell. We did one of those two things.

Getting to Seoul

After work Friday, Nicole and I caught the bus from the Gwangju bus terminal to Seoul, leaving at 11:30 pm and arriving at 3 am. The nice thing about buses between Seoul and Gwangju is that they run every ten minutes and they’re only about $25. Nicole and I packed snacks to bring along and spent the trip napping and eating Korean chips.

When we arrived, we hailed a cab to Itaewon to stay at the same hostel we’d stayed at last time: the SP@Itaewon guesthouse. The cab ride was about $5 and it was way faster than taking the subway like we did last time. I’d written to the hostel a few days before to let them know that we would be arriving at 3 am. They said they’d leave the room unlocked and we could just let ourselves in and pay in the morning. When Nicole and I got to the hostel our room was locked, lucky for us, I’d accidentally taken the key with me from when we stayed last time, so I let us into our room.

Mmm, McDonald's Coffee

Mmm, McDonald’s Coffee

Nicole had signed the two of us up for the Color Me Rad 5k run on Saturday at 11 am, so the two of us threw on some clothes and left the hostel at around 8 am, after about 4 hours of sleep. The only thing open at that time on the streets of Itaewon was McDonald’s, so Nicole and I prepared for our run with Egg McMuffins, terrible coffee, and 4 hours of sleep. I’m sure somewhere out there a runner is cringing at the thought of our pre-race preparations, or lack thereof.

COLOR ME RAD

The Color Me Rad 5k is a race through the Seoul Olympic complex right on the bank of the Han River. It started in the US and its slowly been migrating around the world. The race in Korea had 12,000 registered runners and I would say about half were foreign and half were Korean.

Nicole and I before the race

Nicole and I before the race

 

The race course was set up to run through several of the Olympic stadiums and track and field facilities eventually ending where it began. Along the race course, there were several stations with heavy electronic music and people throwing powdered paint at runners. It was awesome. I encourage you to watch the video above if you want to know what it was like. It was such a fun crazy event and it happens all over the world. 

Nicole and I after the race

Nicole and I after the race

Nicole and I got to the race around 10 am and since the race lets runners start every 10 minutes, Nicole and I were able to start almost as soon as we got there. We gathered at the starting line and waited for our cue to go, which in this case was loud music and a ton of paint being thrown into the air/at us.

I expected everyone to start running once we got the go-ahead, but everyone started slowly walking forward. It was very anticlimactic. Once we got a little bit further down the course and into the stadium, the race opened up and we were able to start running. Most of the Koreans struggled with the idea of running or maybe just weren’t feeling it, but a lot of the participants thought of the run as more of a walk and acted accordingly.

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Subway Ride

After the run, Nicole and I caught the subway back to our hostel with everyone else. The first few subway stops we were in welcome company as the subway was about half full of people covered in paint. However, after another two transfers and several more stops, Nicole and I became the only ones covered in paint on a very clean Korean subway.

Dirty Austin Clean Subway

Dirty Austin Clean Subway

Mexican Lunch

Korean Chipotle Menu

Korean Chipotle Menu

After several showers and lots of scrubbing, Nicole and I went left our hostel and made our way out to Itaewon’s international street and found Mexican food and craft beers. The place was nearly identical to Chipotle back home, complete with the choose your meat/choose your form menu.

Just eating Mexican food and reading about the DMZ

Just eatin’ Mexican food & reading about the DMZ

Riverwalk

Nicole found a really nice part of town for us to walk through Saturday night. Seoul recently completed its largest civic project ever, a man-made river flowing through downtown complete with walkway and laser-fog show. We spent the evening enjoying beverages and walking along this river. There were tons of Korean families out enjoying the riverwalk. We caught the tail-end of one of the laser-fog shows as well.

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Continued in Second Weekend in Seoul: Color Me Rad II

Weekend in Seoul: Part II

To read the first part of my weekend in Seoul go here.

Sunday morning Nicole and I woke up and got a quick bite to eat at the coffee shop across from our Hostel. There are tons of coffee shops in Korea, definitely more than in my hometown. Every few blocks, if not every block there’s a coffee shop. They all sell Americanos, lattes, and usually a ton of frozen drinks that may or may not have any coffee in them.

Korean Friends from Europe

I’d made plans to meet my two Korean friends, Eom and Jeong, that day. I’d met them in Europe while backpacking. They were both engineers at Hyundai working in the Czech Republic at the time, although Jeong had recently left. A few months before I moved to Korea we made plans to meet up and all hangout. Since Nicole and I were going to be in Seoul this weekend, we planned to meet up at the coffee shop by our hostel and travel around for the day.

Eom, Jeong, and I in Itaewon

Eom, Jeong, and I in Itaewon

Jeong had never visited Seoul before so he was as much a tourist as Nicole and I were. Nicole and I told him about our night and he asked to see Itaewon so we walked up the little street by our hostel looking at the brunch shops, bars, and restaurants. Itaewon is a nice little neighborhood. Its very international and a welcome sight for foreign eyes. I’ve had a blast in Korea so far, but every now and again its nice to have a little slice of Western culture.

The restaurant had a bit of a Jungle theme

The restaurant had a bit of a Jungle theme

Lunch

After our Itaewon walkabout, Eom took us on a tour of Seoul by car. It was really helpful to have a friend with a car, especially since it had started to rain. After a month of walking and cabs, I had forgotten about how nice driving was. We didn’t have to worry about paying a fare at the end or having a specific destination in mind. Eom showed us different neighborhoods around Seoul and took us to a nice little Korean restaurant in a very quaint neighborhood. With the little residential buildings so close together and the rain, I felt for a minute like we were in England.

Take your shoes off before sitting down

Take your shoes off before sitting down

The restaurant was my first Korean sit down on the floor restaurant. Most of the places I’d been to up til then were western style table and chair establishments or I’d gotten food to-go. The restaurant was 4 stories and each floor had a little shelf to take your shoes off at before you sat down. Our table was on the top floor and had a great little view of the neighborhood. We took our shoes off at the shelf and sat cross-legged at our table. Eom and Jeong ordered for the table. We had Kimchi, fried rice, several soups, and a spiced meat dish.

Eom and Jeong

Eom and Jeong

Afterwards, we continued our tour of Seoul, traveling next to a mountaintop with a great view looking out over Seoul. On the way up we passed numerous bicyclists and hikers making their way to the top. At the summit was a coffee shop, restaurant, and pagoda area to relax. We took photos and Eom told us about the different neighborhoods. The neighborhood we were looking down at was old money. Many of the people that lived there were in government or had family money. Areas like Gangnam are considered new money, or recently wealthy people. The view, despite being really foggy, was still quite impressive. I imagine on a clear non-rainy day you could see for miles.

 

Nicole and I at lunch

Nicole and I at lunch

 

The Blue House

On the way back down the mountain, we passed the Blue House, where the President of South Korea lives, and many other government buildings. Like most countries capitals, most of the government buildings were clustered together in one area. Every block or so there was a guard post and armed guards on top of buildings. The area was as secure as it was beautiful. There were well-manicured lawns and beautiful trees along the roadside.

 

The view from the mountain

The view from the mountain

 

After driving through the government center, we stopped for gas briefly before Eom and Jeon dropped Nicole and me off at the bus stop. In Korea, there have both self-service gas stations and stations where people pump gas for you. You just pull up and someone comes out and fills the car for you. It was way faster than in the states. The tank was full in a matter of minutes. I don’t know if we have restrictions on how fast gas stations can pump gas through the lines, but pumping gas is significantly faster in Korea. I also learned that they don’t have different grades of gas in Korea, just unleaded and diesel. After the attendant pumped the gas, he gave Eom a travel size box of napkins and some sort of Windex wipes. Apparently getting napkins or wipes like that is pretty common after you buy gas.

Seoul Central Bus Terminal

Seoul Central Bus Terminal

Back on the Bus

At the bus terminal, Eom and Jeong said goodbye to Nicole and I and we made plans to hang out again soon. Nicole and I will be back in Seoul in two weekends for the Color Me Rad color run so we made tentative plans to see Eom then. Jeong lives not too far from Busan, a city Nicole and I really want to visit, so we also made plans to meet up in September when Jeong returns from his business trip.

After saying goodbye, Nicole and I bought our bus ticket and headed back to Gwangju. Overall it was a great weekend. I got to see some of Seoul’s most famous sights like the palace, Insadong, and Itaewon. I also got to spend time with good friends like Ryan, Eom, and Jeong. Having had a great weekend trip like this, I felt even more comfortable living in Korea knowing that I have a great network of people that I can rely on.