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Lazy Sunday, just kidding, I Climbed a Mountain

Gwangju, South Korea

Gwangju, South Korea

Sunday morning rolled around and Nicole headed over to her temporary apartment to move her things into her real apartment. The teacher she was replacing overlapped her contract with Nicole by a week so Nicole was placed in the temporary apartment until the other teacher moved out. Fortunately for Nicole, the previous teacher left a ton of stuff so Nicole’s apartment is fully furnished.

While Nicole busied herself with moving into her new apartment, I updated the blog and edited some photos from our most recent trip.

Nicole’s Neighborhood

Around three I walked from my apartment over to Nicole’s place. Gwangju is divided into 5 areas (Gu’s). North, South, East, West, and New West. I’m in Namgu, which is South I believe. Gwangju is further divided into neighborhoods called Dongs, yes Dongs. My school is in Bongsun Dong and Nicole’s school is in Hak Dong. Walking, we’re about 30 minutes away, or a $3 cab ride. Anyway, I made it to Nicole’s place and we set out on our adventure for the day.

My plate of food at the Buddhist Buffet. The bread was amazing

My plate of food at the Buddhist Buffet. The bread was amazing

Our first stop was to Nicole’s favorite restaurant in Gwangju, a Buddhist buffet with a name I don’t remember. The restaurant is on the outskirts of Gwangju towards the Southeast and surrounded by mountains. The seating at the restaurant is really neat. All the chairs are really comfortable Baroquesque chairs with intricate wood carvings surrounding soft padded backs in various vibrant colors.

Buddhist Buffet

Buddhist Buffet

The buffet is 6000KRW or about $6 and it’s all vegetarian. There are two massive buffet tables with tons of different dishes. The buffet starts with several giant stacks of plates that are about my height, then every variety of white rice you can imagine (so 1, but there were actually 3), then several soups and veggie dishes. The other buffet table had salad stuff, I didn’t go over there, but I’m told its good. My favorite food was this really dense bread that was spongy and delicious, and definitely the best bread product I’ve had since I’ve been in Korea.

Nicole at the Buddhist Buffet, note the awesome chairs.

Nicole at the Buddhist Buffet, note the awesome chairs.

Climbing a Mountain

After our meal, Nicole and I started our trek up the mountain immediately behind the restaurant. The road up to the hiking paths is packed with various outdoor supply stores like Northface and Redface (the Korean knockoff) and I mean literally packed, like 15 stored in two or three blocks. The shops are all in the alpine ski lodge style of architecture and it really felt like Vail or Aspen in Summertime, aside from all the Korean obviously. So how can such a small area support so many stores? Koreans are obsessed with outdoor gear, and I mean obsessed. On our walk up the mountain, we passed numerous Koreans wearing every possible piece of gear one could imagine: hiking jackets, pants, hats, backpacks, hiking poles, boots, everything you could think of and more. Also, keep in mind it’s about 90 degrees outside.

My new shirt

My new shirt

I stopped into one such shop with Nicole and bought myself a Redface quick dry shirt. The shopkeeper was really nice and let me try on the shirt and helped me find various sizes. The fitting rooms had bags that you put over your head before you put clothes, presumably so your face doesn’t touch the clothes. They were really odd, but I tried one.

The river along our path

The river along our path

With my sweet new shirt, I was now ready to conquer Mudeungsan mountain. Nicole and I spent the rest of the day walking uphill towards one of the lower peaks. The peak we climbed to was about 460m, while the highest one is about 900m. Along our walk, we passed numerous Koreans in their full gear. Many of them gave us bewildered looks because we had no gear and we were climbing the same mountain as them.

The path we took wasn’t just for hiking, we passed a very modern looking contemporary art museum, an old wooden waterwheel, and several Buddhist temples. I was captivated by the level of intricacy in the temples. The woodworking along the base of the roofs was incredible. I made Nicole hang out for a few minutes while I took a ton of pictures.

Temples

Buddhist Temple from afar

Buddhist Temple from afar

The temples and occasional buildings began to fade away as we climbed higher and higher. Eventually, it was just nature and the occasional wooden stairwell. The forest of Mudeungsan mountain was dense, but none of the trees were particularly large, just plentiful. After another half hour or so, we reached a ridgeline where we could see for miles.

Buddhist Temple Woodwork

Buddhist Temple Woodwork

 

The view was incredible, mountains seemed to go on forever in every direction. Looking back towards Gwangju I was reminded of the dichotomy between man and nature. As big of a city as Gwangju seemed when I was inside it, once I got outside the city, I realized how small it was in comparison to the nature around it. Towering buildings that seemed so large when I stood beside them were easily dwarfed by the mountains surrounding them. The city seemed constricted by the mountains, confined to the scraps of flat land that nature discarded for man to inhabit. I was humbled by the experience and pleased that in the rivalry between man and nature, nature was still winning.

Man vs Nature

Man vs Nature

Nicole and I made our descent back down Mudeungsan mountain and into the city. That night we watched Netflix, ate Ramen, and prepared for our first day of teaching the next day.

Amazing View

Amazing View

 

 

 

Beach Day – Korea Style

Gwangju Bus Terminal

Gwangju Bus Terminal

On Saturday, Nicole and I met up with the rest of my english teacher friends downstairs and we shared a cab to the bus terminal downtown. Cabs in Korea are absurdly cheap and the ride downtown worked out to about $1 each. The cabs also tend to be really nice. Most that I’ve seen are new Hyundai’s or Kia’s with in-dash navigation system and leather seats.  The cab drivers dress nicely and there is no glass partition between the front and back seat. [divider_flat]

Nicole and Gold Statue

Nicole and Gold Statue

When you travel in Korea you have four options, although only one is really practical. You can take a plane if you have tons of money and want to go to Busan, Seoul, Gwangju, or outside of Korea. You can take a train if you have a bit less money and you want to get wherever quickly. You can take a bus if you have little money and don’t mind a slightly longer trip, or you can take a car if you have no money and you know someone with a car. We were going to the beach and we had a little bit of money so we took a bus. [divider_flat]

Isaac Toast

Isaac Toast

The Gwangju bus terminal is massive. Its about the size of a shopping mall in the states, and it pretty much is a shopping mall. It’s filled with shops and restaurants and has room for a few dozen buses that leave almost constantly (the bus to Seoul leaves every ten minutes). We had about 30 minutes before our bus left so Nicole and I and a few of the other teachers got Isaac Toast. Isaac Toast is a fast food restaurant that makes sandwiches out of any combination of the following ingredients: egg, cheese, sausage, spam, ham, kimchi, and veggies. They were pretty good.[divider_flat]

DSC_0030When the bus arrived, we all piled on and sat towards the back. The buses are a bit nicer than a greyhound or megabus. There are two leather seats on each side of the aisle and no bathroom. So dont drink anything before your bus trip because the bathroom stops are infrequent (2 hours) or nonexistent.

Patrick and Peter

Patrick and Peter

The bus trip was my second opportunity to see the Korean countryside, and my first opportunity to really appreciate it since I was so exhausted following my long flight. The countryside of Korea, or atleast the bits I’ve seen, are filled with rice patties and sloping hills with lush green trees. There were many little villages along the way, some were as small as a few buildings and maybe a temple or two.

Beach Boardwalk

Beach Boardwalk

We arrived at the Wondo bus terminal, and it pailed in comparison to the giant megaplex that is the Gwangju bus terminal. This terminal was small and dirty with only a little convenience store inside. Outside of the terminal, the 8 of us hailed two cabs with the help of my Korean teacher friend, Peter.

The ride out to Sinji Myeongsasipri Beach was about $4 each. We were dropped off in front of a little 7-11, they’re very popular in Korea. Inside we bought OB beer, water, and various Korean snacks, many of which were chips made to taste like seafood (delicious!). The beach was almost directly behind the convenience store.

Sinji Myeongsasipri Beach

Sinji Myeongsasipri Beach

Sinji Myeongsasipri beach is beautiful. There is a small boardwalk with several outdoor eateries and a little complex with showers and bathrooms. The sand on the beach is a yellowish tan and very soft. On either side of the  beach are rocks and cliffs expanding out into the distance. Several small islands were visible off the coast.

Sinji Myeongsasipri Beach

Sinji Myeongsasipri Beach

 

Nicole and I stripped down to our bathing suits and went to join everyone in the water. The water was freezing, like Maine in the summer time. Nicole got goosebumps and kept to the shore. I braved the water up to mid thigh for a bit before coming back to shore. The rest of the teachers that went with us were from Washington state and Oregon, so they were fine with the fridgid water.

Sinji Myeongsasipri Beach

Sinji Myeongsasipri Beach

Back on shore, Nicole and I tanned, or Nicole tanned and I lay there applying coat after coat of sunscreen to my fragile ivory skin. Peter, one of the Korean teachers from the school upstairs offered Nicole and I Korean convenience store snacks like garlic toast chips and some sort of sweet Bugles like thing. They were pretty delicious.

The trip back to Wondo

The trip back to Wondo

Around 7, it came time for Nicole and I to return to Gwangju. The rest of the teachers would be staying the night in Wondo, but Nicole and I had to return so she could move into her real apartment on Sunday. Peter called us a cab from his phone and we rode back into town to the Wondo bus terminal.

We had a few minutes so Nicole and I walked around the block in search of Kimbap or anything else to tide us over on the two hour bus ride. Everywhere we saw looked like they would take awhile so Nicole and I had Isaac Toast for the second time that day.

The trip back to Wondo

The trip back to Wondo

Earlier in the day in Gwangju, we had the benefit of Peter’s fluent Korean to help order, but in Wondo, away from the rest of the group, Nicole and I were on our own. I ordered the picture off the wall. Nicole tried to mime that she wanted an egg and cheese sandwich with no ham, sausage, or cabbage. It went as well as you might expect and Nicole ended up with a sandwich she didnt want.

The trip back to Wondo

The trip back to Wondo

 

We left Isaac Toast, sandwiches in hand, and raced to the bus just in time to be the last two to sit down. I ate my sandwich and all the toppings Nicole didnt want off her sandwich.

When we arrived back at the Gwangju bus terminal, Nicole and I did a bit of shopping at the E-Mart, Korea’s Target. The one at the bus terminal is the biggest E-Mart in Gwangju and probably top 5 in Korea. Its several stories and about the size of a Target, which is unfathomably large by Korean standards.

I was able to get all the remaining knick knacks for my apartment, comforter, pillows, cups, bowls, knife cutting board, etc. Since Nicole’s apartment came furnished, she only bought food. As a vegetarian that prefers to buy organic, she was in heaven in E-Mart since then carry quite a few organic vegetarian products.

After we paid, Nicole and I hailed a cab back to my place and settled in for the night. Overall, I had a pretty solid beach day. Its been a week or so since I moved to Korea, and while I’m not totally at home, I am settling in pretty well. I know where the dollar store by my house is for cheap household stuff. I know where the nearest grocery store is for any food I need, and I know how to get to E-mart where I can get anything I can’t find at the first two places.

 

My first week in Korea: Apartment and Job

Officially my first week in Korea will be over tonight, but since I’ll be working today, I decided to write up this post now instead. Overall, it has been a great first week. I moved in last Monday night, met my neighbor, Kayla, who also just moved in, and started making myself at home.

The Net

I bought a router for my apartment that Kayla and I split since her apartment is right next to mine. In exchange, she gave me her extra mattress pad for my bed, which makes my bed comfortable enough to sleep on.

Most of this past week I spent training to take over Tez’s teaching schedule. In general, his classes seem pretty manageable. Each class ranges in size from 1 to 15 students. Most of the younger classes and older classes tend to be 1-8 students. The few big classes I have will be in the middle of the day with the middle schoolers. I will be teaching everything from elementary phonics (bat, mat, cat, etc.) to teaching high school TOEFL speaking (you have 15 seconds to compose a minute long speech defending your opinion).

My Schedule

I need to be at work at 1 pm on Monday and 1:30 the rest of the week. We spend the first several hours planning for our classes, as the academy doesn’t start classes until 4 pm. During that time, typically we’ll look over lesson plans, review the material, or get lunch. During the 4 pm to 10 pm block, basically the rest of my day, I teach 5 to 6 classes, with one day of 7 classes. Within those classes, I have one class period off to eat dinner and another class period off for a break. Each class is 40 minutes with a 5-minute break in between.

I’ve gotten to know my neighborhood a little bit better as well. Its a fairly average working-class neighborhood, which in Korea means lots of PC Clubs, marts, and Kimbap places. PC clubs are internet cafes with really fast computers mainly for gaming. Marts are just minimarts and there is usually 1 every hundred feet if not closer. Kimbap places are little cafes with a small menu of kimbap (sushi-like rice roll), several variations on ramen, and a few rice bowls. I’m sure there’s more to them, but that’s all I’ve had so far.

My Korean Apartment in Gwangju

Korean apartments, like most apartments in big cities, are tiny. Most foreign teachers have little studio apartments (one room with a kitchen and bathroom). Originally, I expected to receive a studio apartment. However, I lucked out with a one bedroom, with a decent amount of closet space, and by that I mean there is a closet.

The Entrance

The entrance to the apartment has a little electronic lock on it that looks similar to a hotel lock. You slide up a panel, enter a 4 digit code, then close the panel. The lock plays a little 8-bit (think Gameboy) tune then unlocks. Once you’re inside the panel plays the same little song backward, then locks itself. Its really neat and it makes stopping by friend’s apartments easy. If I’m still at work and Nicole wants to come over, she can just enter the code and make herself at home until I get back.

My shoes beside the door

My shoes beside the door

When you walk into most Korean apartments, there’s a little area by the door to take off your shoes. In all the apartments I’ve seen, it’s a little stone area thats lower than the rest of the apartment, to contain any dirt or water from the shoes.

Main Room

Main Room

Floor Heating

The apartment, aside from the bathroom is all wood floors. Korean heating comes from a network of heated pipes under the floor. There’s a unit on the wall, similar to a thermostat that controls both the floor heating and the hot water heater for the shower. I’m told floor heating is really expensive to run, like $7-a-day expensive. Most foreign teachers have told me just to buy a little space heater and keep it in whatever room you’re in, instead of heating the entire apartment.

The closet

The Closet

To the left of the main door is a wall of cabinets, and aside from my kitchen, it’s really the only source of storage in the apartment. Luckily, its big enough to hold all my clothes and most of the luggage I traveled here with.

The Bathroom

Across from the front door is the bathroom. In Korea, there are no dedicated showers. It’s generally seen as a waste of space. Instead, there’s a shower head on the wall that just sprays all over the bathroom and the entire bathroom becomes the shower. It seemed odd at first, but I’ve grown accustomed to it and now I just see it as a giant awesome shower. One point worth noting is that, as you might expect, everything in your bathroom will get wet, so put your toilet paper away and any other electronics (hair dryer, razor, etc) before you shower.

Apartment Bathroom

Apartment Bathroom

The Living Room

The main room of the apartment is the size of most college bedrooms. It’s not particularly big, just enough room for a TV, desk, and small couch (coming soon). My apartment comes with a TV and cable, whether I want it or not. All the channels, aside from FOX, seem to be in Korea. I’m told discovery channel is in English as well. I’ll take a look another day.

There is a set of sliding glass doors that separate the kitchen from the main room. I’m told this is to keep kitchen smells and heat from getting into the rest of the house as well as insulate the main rooms from the cold or heat outside.

The Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

The kitchen has a small sink, a two burner stove (no oven), a 3/4 size fridge, and a washing machine (no dryer). On the ceiling is a drying rack that can be lowered down. Once you’re done washing your clothes, you lower the rack, place your clothes on it, then raise it back up again to keep it out of the way. When you’re using the drying rack, especially in winter, it’s important to close the kitchen doors and open the kitchen window, to keep the rest of the apartment from becoming moldy from the wet clothes.

The Bedroom

Finally the bedroom. It’s in the back of the apartment and about the size of the main room. I have a bedside table and a bed. The bed is interesting. Korean’s have single size beds instead of twins. Singles are about halfway between a twin and a double. There a pretty good size. I wouldn’t mind having one in the states. With Nicole and I sleeping on it, there’s enough space for both of us to sleep comfortably, but no extra space off to one side or the other. The mattress is absurdly uncomfortable. It’s an old metal spring mattress with zero cushion. I’m told this is common in Korea. Kayla, another foreign teacher at my school, and also my neighbor, had two mattress pads, so she gave me one to use. With the pad of the bed, it’s pretty comfortable.

Bedroom

Bedroom

The entire apartment is cooled by an AC unit in the living room that has a little remote for it. Because the apartment is so small, the unit can cool down most of the apartment in 30 minutes or so. Overall, the apartment exceeded my expectations for a Korean apartment, and once I get a small couch, I’ll be pretty happy with the place.

My first full day in Korea

Nicole and I woke up around 5:30 am, not bad for my first day on a 13-hour time difference. Nicole had correctly assumed I didn’t buy groceries my first night in Korea, so she brought over bananas and a granola bar. We ate that and decided to explore my new neighborhood.

Gwangju is nice, this photo is not, better ones coming soon

Gwangju is nice, this photo is not, better ones coming soon

Korea is an interesting place in that nothing is open before 10 am, and I mean that quite literally. With the exception of an occasional coffee shop, 1 in 10 maybe, everything is closed until at least 10. Nicole and I happened to stumble across a little French bakery around 10 and had our first Korean breakfast: bagel pizza. So my first Korean breakfast was an Italian dish from a French bakery. It was interesting, to say the least. First off, I view bagel pizza as a bizarre take on regular pizza and the Korean version was a bizarre take on the traditional pizza. It had cheese, tomato sauce, I think mayo and corn. All the pizza in Korea has corn on it…all of it.

Banana Milk

Banana Milk

Post bagel pizza, Nicole and I went shopping for basic necessities: water, shampoo, etc.

[box type=”notice” ]UPDATE: the shampoo I bought is amazing, possibly the best shampoo I have ever used and fortunately for me it comes with a giant refill bag of more shampoo that I can siphon into the original bottle. All the Korean shampoo I’ve seen comes with this additional refill bag. It’s odd, but incredibly thrifty.[/box]

Around 11 Nicole had to leave to go to her school so I wandered over to the Samsung store and bought myself a router. In Korea, Samsung makes everything: Forklifts, A/C units, routers, and the usual electronics they make in the states. When I got back to my apartment the router didn’t work, hence the delay in posting these blog entries.

As far as I could tell, this store only sold eggs.

As far as I could tell, this store only sold eggs.

At this point it was around 12:40 so I met up with Kayla, the other new teacher that lives in the apartment next to me and we walked downstairs to meet Judy, another one of the teachers who’s been here awhile. The three of us picked up more Kimbap at the little restaurant we’d stopped at on my first night in town.

When I got to the school I spent most of the day just observing other teachers. Around 8 pm the director of the school let me leave to get some rest and try to adjust to the time change. I took a cab to Nicole’s apartment and we drank Hoegaarden and hung out before passing out around 10. Adjusting to this time change will be harder than I thought.