who ... moi?

a social butterfly: scared of much, but not of many. never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. not a fan of acronyms, snakes and angelina jolie. a HUGE fan of Fathead.

this blog is black for ENERGY-SAVING reasons.

thanks for your understanding.
if it's too dark, put your glasses on old one.

Friday, February 26, 2010

sorry, we're sold out of "entrepreneurship"

at the back end of our holiday last week, we set off to a town called gohan - famous for it's ski resorts.  i had, against my better judgment, been convinced by Fathead to return the slopes for a second round of skiing.

i will remind everyone that this was only the second time that this sportingly-challenged being attempted ski greatness.  

a friend of ours had kindly arranged the trip on our behalf - sorting out accommodation, pricing structures, gear rentals and transport arrangements.  you can imagine how this might be somewhat difficult in a country that basically doesn't speak english - so we were rather relieved to have this schlep taken off our hands!

another sparrow's fart start had us back at the same bus terminal we used to get to gyeongju.

another warm and luxurious bus ride, and soon we were in gohan and checking into the high valley hotel.

loom for 6 please? 


shortly after settling in, we headed up to the slope - high 1 ski resort
in comparison to the previous resort - high 1 is a monster.  it's slopes are breathtakingly enormous.  they seem to span across entire mountain ranges.  i'd never seen or imagined anything of it's scale. 

the only way to navigate the resort is by using an intricate and highly efficient cable car / ski lift system.  the design seems to have been inspired by that of a subway - as you have to switch cable tracks and catch connecting ski lifts.   

the cable cars (for some reason also called "gondolas") are glass all around, and the views from this height are unbelievable.

the "beginners" slope (which our friend insisted was the right one for my level of ski-pertise) was around 2,8km down a mountain.  it was steep, it was winding.  it was full of small people (who's skills far exceeded mine).

around the 8th fall, i had all but given up.  i was frustrated and alone (seen as everyone else, but this stage, had reached the bottom and was happily enjoying lunch).  i took a deep breath and with that, decided i would not let this mountain beat me.  so i summoned my inner hero, had a private pep-talk with myself and bravely rose to my feet once more.

my eyes locked forward with a determined glint so powerful, the trees began to shake in fear.  it was just the mountain and i up there.  no one else. not even the wind dared venture so high.

i adjusted my grip on the poles, positioned my ski's and in a soundless moment, i was gliding down the icy slope with the grace of a raptor in flight. 

then i lost the ability to stop, and collided ski-first, with a large cement barrier.

as i lay in a twisted heap of ski's and poles and legs and feet being pulled in directions nature had not intended for them, the slope broken my spirit.

so i unclipped my ski's, propped them under my arm, and began to limp my 2,5 hr downhill hike from hell.

embarrassed, in pain, tearful and defeated - i eventually arrive at the bottom. 
i had slipped and slid down 2,3km's of steep snow.

my aches and shame were soaked away for an hour in a jimjilbang (korean spa/sauna).  these are fairly common in korea.  they usually have treatments available, as well as relaxation lounges, gyms and sleeping quarters where you can spend the night.  they also have hot pools - ranging in temperatures between 24 and 45 degrees.  the pools are often made from some kind of mineral - jade, red dust clay, gold, marble ... each intended to release, relieve, relax or rejuvenate.

men and women are separated and once inside, everyone is naked. at first it's a little strange (well, for me anyway).  but once you're in the pools, and you're having your back massaged by high speed water jets, and you're helping yourself to the many pamper products they display on offer ... you get over it pretty quickly.

the following morning, my ego was still rather wounded, and like the wuss i can be - i declined to venture onto the slope of death for a second helping of ass-whipping.

instead, i wandered into town to uncover the hidden charms gohan might have. shortly into my explorations, i'd seen pretty much all there is to see in this ski-befok dorpie.

the town's existence revolves entirely around the skiing industry.  the street (yes, there is only one) is lined on both sides with gear rental stores.  each store offers the exact same gear, at the exact same price.  each store will shuttle you to the resort, and will collect the gear from you, at the resort.

so, one might draw the conclusion that this is a rather saturated market.  one might also see an enormous entrepreneurial opportunity for others to offer something different to the guests in the town.

i don't know - maybe a restaurant.  or perhaps a bar.  somewhere that people would go when they are not on the ski slopes.   perhaps, offer them something they might want when on a skiing holiday ... like, umm ... food, or water, or perhaps even coffee.

but no!  the folks in gohan do not appear to think that a tourist on a ski trip might like something warm to drink.  or perhaps something to satiate their hunger.  apparently, the only thing you could possible need when visiting gohan is a snow board, or a set of skis.  that's the final verdict.  okay?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

couple dressing

since we've been here, we've heard a lot about "couple dressing".  it is, as it says: couples dress the same as each other.

you may think this is quite sweet.
you may think this it is a rather "cool" trend from a foreign land.

sure, okay.  i hear you ...

i mean, there's not real harm in a couple wearing the same tracksuits to the gym.  i suppose that it could be a pretty cool tradition if couples wore the same golf gear onto the green.  i'll even push it far enough to say that if a couple were on an ice-rink, then i'd be rather okay with them wearing the same shade of spandex.

however, korea takes things to another level.

take this (a valentine's shop-window display);

 and no ... this is not "out-of-the-ordinary".  
this is how lingerie is promoted. 

seriously.  matching lingerie. 


Monday, February 22, 2010

gyeongju continued

outside of the bulguksa temple we met a group of foreign teachers who had been granted a day's leave from their hagwon.  we found ourselves united in our struggles to teach in a foreign country, understand korean, appreciate the cuisine, adjust to the differences ... find a bar / restaurant in the ghost town that we were all sleeping in for the night. 

chatting about our experiences and travels to date, we realised that although we had much in common with these gents, we were very much better off than they were.  our one week of leave blew their minds - as they recounted the rules and regulations that they have to adhere to in their school.  the more we spoke (over a meal in a mangy traditional diner) the more acutely aware we became of how fortunate we have been to end up working where we have, with the people we have, in the conditions we have. 

it is not all a pretty picture out here.  this blog just happens to be coming from the perspective of one very fortunate foreigner.

filled with pity (and relief) with ditched our depressing dinner dates and headed for the imhaejeon site.  best viewed at night ... i'm sure you'll agree. 

the ponds and gardens of this site were linked together through many separate buildings, which together surrounded the palace of the silla king in 674.  they were originally installed along with an artificial hill on which rare flowers and trees were planted, and uncommon birds and animals were raised. 

imhaejeon was ued to host royal banquets - and i can't really imagine a more incredible place to do so.

the remaining three palace terraces that have been restored.

an emmaculate small-scale wooden model shows what the entire pleasure garden was thought to have looked like, before it's ruin.
the lotus pond, roughly the shape of the korean peninsula, allowed the king to "view" his entire kingdom, now lit at night to reveal a mirror-image on a crystal clear water surface

on our icy walk back to catch a taxi into the university district (which we later explored by bar-hopping) - we encountered this bottle-shaped stone structure, known as cheomseongdae ("star observation platform").  it is one of the oldest structures in korea, and is also considered the oldest astronomical observatory in all of east asia. 

the tower is believed to have been used to trace the paths of stars, predict lunar eclipses and determine weather cycles according to the position of the moon.

the square base is made with 12 large stone slabs - one for each zodiac figure.  atop these, granite blocks are stacked, one for each day of the year. including all stones, there is a total of 30 layers, one for each month of the lunar year.


a breakdown of our break

we entered this holiday with much more pressure than would be expected:

what would we fill our week with? where would we go?

the phillipines?   ...  no, too expensive (given the fact that every korean goes there at this time of year).  so we looked into other holiday destinations - saigon, taiwan, manila... all far beyond our budget.  prior to going bankrupt we chose to "keep it local" and decided to stay in SK for the week.   which if you think about it, makes sense seen as we're only here for 6 months, and the opportunity for us to do any long distance travel during this time, is unlikely to present itself again.

so during the build up to our break, we stopped at every tourist info centre (okay, we stopped at all three) collecting maps and brochures (most of which were in japanese).  subway lines and tour routes were sellotaped to our room wall, and the days were filled with debates on where to go, the duration of each visit and the activities we intended to tick off the ever-growing list.

looking back on the week, we managed to cover a fair bit of ground - as you will see in the following few posts, which i've decided to spread over the next few days as there's too much to try and cover in one go. 

that said, we'll start with last friday

blowing off some steam, we celebrated the beginning of our holiday with a wee night on the town

the following day we went to a neighbouring town to book bus tickets for our first trip - a journey that would begin at 5am the following morning.  with tickets in hand, we decided to stroll our yatap.  this city district is ratherdrab and boring, most of it a repeat of other parts of other urban areas in and around seoul.

still, we gave it the benefit of a good exploration.  one thing that is far more frequent in yatap than our area, is the amount of live seafood kept outside quaint dining nooks.

these tanks line the walkways throughout yatap.  this on in particular held a weird and wonderful collection of live shellfish ... check out the mammoth mussel-type creatures in the top right.  WFT? (click to enlarge)

during our stroll, we bumped into the look-alike of an old friend ... anyone reconise this chicken?

how uncanny is the resemblance?!

last weekend - trip to gyeongju

before the city awoke on sunday morning, Fathead had dragged me out of the warmth of bed, popped me into a taxi, hauled me through the yatap bus terminal and off we set for our first cross-country adventure to gyeongju.

 (click to enlarge this map) 

we're based just south east of seoul  (still considered a district of seoul, actually).  where we went was to the far south east coast of the country ... see where gyeongju is?

what's incredible is that you can cross the country in about 5 hrs by bus.  you can't even leave the western cape in that much time. 

although a short trip, i'm sure you'll agree that 5 hr's in a cramped, smelly, creaky, smokey bus is hell on earth anyway.

fortunately for us, we weren't on that bus.  instead, we found ourselves seated in first-class airline seats.  luxurious leather couches which received us like the embrace of an old friend.  heated seats.  foot rests and enough leg room to do the highland fling whilst seated.

it was rad.

we even had on-board entertainment - a gripping reality show detailing the shenanigans of a "naughty boys weekend away".  

these guys were crazy i tell you - getting up to the most daring of things ... dressing up, playing "hacky sack" with a purple tinsel poof (manne - maak gereed vir oorlog).  
it was wild man!   well, the winner - he was the main man - he walked away with his very own stuffed fluffy toy train (with a smiley face).
  looka how hapi i am to hab won my new bester plend

when the bus arrived in gyeongju we hopped off into the middle of nowhere and just stood there, looking lost - like two lost tourists who've just been dropped off in the middle of nowhere.

picking a direction (using only our internal compasses, and a came of rock-paper-scissors to determine the winner) we began to roam the streets in search of a coffee shop in which we could dump our backpacks and formulate our p.o.a

however, being the lunar new year, everyone was at home with their families.  every soul was out of sight. even the green and red men in the traffic lights had taken the day off.  

everyone, that is - except for this ajumama (korean for little old lady). 

the elderly dear runs a coffee shop hidden two floors up, behind a billiards room and above a tiny cafe.  no neon light, not flashy business sign ... just the humblest, handwritten card announcing that in this nook and cranny, you will find "live coffee". 

and in what could have been her living room, we did.   

from the rubble pile of back packs and jackets, scarves, gloves, coffees, ashtrays, lonely planet guides and streets maps - we plotted our journey. 

first stop, the home in which we would spend the night. 
sa rang chae (click for details)

the entrance to our bedroom

do come in and make yourself at home ... 

so this is the entrance foyer, master bedroom, lounge and dining area ... 

behind you, the front door and courtyard

and through this door sized for asian-people, you'll find the en-suite bathroom

i'm taking the piss though - it was an incredibly beautiful place. this means of accommodation (known as a homestay) is a great way for a foreigner to immerse themselves in the authentic korean way of life.

over 200 years old this characterful home belonged to a couple, mr & mrs choo, who welcomed us with a familiar warmth that we're becoming quite accustomed to.

the courtyard surrounding the guest bedroom is filled with interesting crafts and handmade ceramic bits and bobs.  an exquisite, antique chess set lies casually on the breakfast table, whilst ancient artifacts that they've either inherited or excavated scatter the garden area.  

inside their home, there is a communal family area where you can access internet, play a game of jenga, try on traditional korean dresses, make traditional crafts, help yourself to breakfast and even, pump your own drinking water from an ancient well around which their house has been built. 

Fathead prepares scrambled eggs ... simple, yet one of our greatly-missed home comforts

mr choo enjoys his morning read

eventhough the homestay feels like you're in the depths of korea, the house is a collage of foreign leave-behinds ... a reminder of how many travellers have found themselves sleeping on these floors.  small hand-scrawled notes of appreciation and promises to return cover the walls - notes from every corner of the globe. 

a favourite of mine - the australian view of the world (this one's for boozy and wheezy)

out in the streets of gyeongju, we found a weird and magical place.  with the new year drawing everyone indoors, the town was completely abandoned.  never before have we been in anything closer to a "ghost town".  

it was such an intriguing experience. 
viewing the many craft shops, buddist art galleries, bars, restaurants, clubs, hotels, love motels, chain stores ... it was clear that usually this place is a hive of activity. yet on this day, not even a stray dog was in sight.  market places were exactly as their stall owners had left them.  it was as if, the entire town has suddenly and without warning, been evacuated.

a little disappointed that we were unable to feel the energy of the place, we took the opportunity to visit the many ancient heritage sites which can be found in any direction you choose to walk.

gyeongju has modernised itself out of a natural progression and necessity - but at the core, it remains one of the oldest and most historically rich areas of south korea.

in and amongst the malls and markets, ancient tombs majesticall rise up - reminding you that beneath the pavings lies a land soaked in history, dynasty rule, blood shed and ritual.

beneath these tombs lie great warriors, noble men and royal family members.

to give you an idea of the scale of these (of which there are many to be found all over the city) - see the two very tiny people standing in the foreground?

bulguksa temple

this is one of the most prominently important temples in korean history.  it was built in 774 during the reign of king hyegong.  it was the centre of silla buddhism and of prayer for the protection of the country against invasion.   

ironically it was japanese invaders who burnt it to the ground in 1593.  though the main hall and a few other principal parts of the temple were rebuilt - it was only around the late 60's that it was completely restored. 

inside the temple gates, two stone pagodas have been resurrected - both having been excavated from the ruins, both important cultural properties of the silla dynasty.  along with these retrieved temple components, two bridges, a gate, two seated gilt bronze statues are also now safely back in their rightful place.

in 1995, the temple was designated as a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO.

i would imagine that in springtime these hills are lush and green and the walkway is filled with cherry blossoms

three gods

mountain spring fills an ancient fountain

as we were there on such a spiritual day, many local families visited the temple to carry out traditional rituals of prayer.  inside the temple, no cameras were allowed (obviously) - but if you enlarge this image, you can see some of the buddist monks receiving worshippers affirmations of health and good fortune for the new lunar year.

two turtle necks
i've been to buddist temples before, but this visit was particularly humbling.  here, we were welcome observers of very private religious moments, and as such were expected to keep our distance and silence in respect to those worshippers who had come to the temple to use it as it was intended, rather than to view it as a photo opportunity.

sipping from the spring fountain and making a wish of good fortune for the new year, were small respectful gestures we did take part in. 

here, Fathead adds one small pebble to a pile - these towers are built up communally, each level representing an individuals' prayer for healthy and happiness in the coming year.


this bell is a replica of the one that was destroyed in the japanese invasion.  the original has a dark and twisted legend which tells the story of how when the bell was first struck, it failed to ring.  the king ordered it to be recast and when struck again, it cracked. 

several unsuccessful attempts were made, until a celestial spirit appeared in a dream to the head priest of the temple.  in the dream, it was indicated that the fire spirit dragon needed to be appeased, and only then would the bell ring.   to acheive this, a young girl who was born in the year, month, day and hour of the dragon needed to be thrown  into the molten mental from which the bell would be made. 

this was done - the bell was poured and set - and when struck, the bell did not crack.  however, legend says, the sound of the bell's ring resonated with the tortured cry of the young girl, calling for her mother. 

okay - i'll admit that's not exactly what you'd call "ending on a high note"

... but despite that disturbing tale, we had an amazingly peaceful and grounding afternoon.