Traveling Korea: Gyeongju (경주)

What I Saw

Before diving into winter camp, I knew I’d want to do something when it was all over to celebrate. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to go visit a friend of mine in another city, but after some consideration, we decided to all take a trip to Gyeongju instead.

Located about two and a half hours northeast of Jinju, Gyeongju is a city overflowing with history. The city was the location where the Silla dynasty ruled for thousands of years, leaving behind historic sites and relics. The first site I saw in Gyeongju was Cheomseongdae, an old observatory dating back to 632 AD. This historic treasure was easily seen from the road, and I passed it many, many times throughout my time in Gyeongju. At night, the little tower was lit up with colored light, giving it a nice glow. Moving past Cheomseongdae, we ventured to the Gyerim Forest, a small forest where people believe the Gyeongju Kim clan originated. The myth goes that a golden box was discovered hanging from trees within the forest by passerbys who heard a rooster cry. Beyond the forest, there is a Confucian school.

In the evening, my friends and I went to the Donggung Palace and Woji Pond. The palace dates back centuries to 674 AD, and the artificial pond reflects back the beautiful scenery of the palace grounds. At night, this area was stunning.

The last tourist site we went to was Bulguksa, a Buddhist temple with a rich history and many incredible artifacts, including gilt bronze Buddhas and two stone pagodas in the temple courtyard. Throughout the temple were lotus lanterns. Attached to each was a wish written by someone. At night, these lanterns are illuminated, as are the wishes. Despite the large amount of people swarming the temple grounds, I felt at peace. My friend, who is Korean, told me that all of the wishes brought her joy because each one shared something positive. I even got to make a wish of my own by stacking a small pebble on top of one of the many rock towers. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that it comes true!

What I Ate

Each region in Korea is famous for a different kind of food. Luckily for me, Gyeongju is famous for its soft tofu soup. While the soup is typically made with some type of animal stock, my friends explained to the owner that I don’t eat meat and she offered to make me a soup without the animal stock. Instead, my soup was flavored with soy sauce and some green onions. The soup was delicious, and so were the sides that came with our meals. Along with my soup, I had white rice, seaweed, and various other vegetables with red pepper sauce.

For dinner, we had kimbap, again typically made with ham, but a special roll was made without it so that I could enjoy kimbap with my friends. Along with our Kimbap we had Doritos, popcorn, cheese, and crackers. It was a hodgepodge of a meal, but every bite was amazing. We ate our meal, enjoyed traditional Korean blackberry wine, and played an intense game of “Would you rather.”

Between lunch and dinner we spent some time at a cafe, where we had Americanos and Korean rice cakes. I adore Korean rice cakes, and these ones were still warm. Of course, I wanted to know if the different colors meant different flavors (it didn’t), so we all shared the various colored rice cakes. Walking to the Palace, we grabbed some street food, including a sugary deep-fried donut and a grilled cake filled with a syrup-like substance and nuts. Both were warm and delicious.

On Sunday, we grabbed lunch to-go from the vegetarian restaurant near our guest house. While all the food that weekend was amazing, I have to admit that the take-out was my favorite simply because it was my favorite food: falafel. I haven’t had falafel in nearly six months, and I’ve missed it. Even though my pita had some pretty interesting add-ins like apple slices, it was still amazing.

Traveling to new parts of Korea is something I look forward to and wish I could do more often. I’m grateful that my friend took the time to plan such an amazing trip. Each thing she planned for us was something I’m glad I got to experience. My next trip will be to Seoul at the end of February, and I am excited to see what the bustling capital of Korea has in store for me.

Hong Kong: First Impressions

As soon as I stepped off my plane I remembered how overwhelming the Hong Kong airport is. It’s huge, full of stores and eateries. This time around, I learned that the airport has its own rail system, much like the Atlanta airport in Georgia. I spent a decent amount of time in the airport, working my way through immigration and customs. I breezed past the baggage claim, my backpack full of everything I’d need for my five days in Hong Kong. For the second time, I attempted to locate the free showers in the airport only to fail once again, and made my way to the counter to buy a transit pass.

One thing I forgot about Hong Kong is that it’s currency is also dollars, but Hong Kong Dollars are very different than US dollars. The first time I was in the Hong Kong Airport and went to Starbucks, my coffee and sandwich cost $99, which equated to about $11. I forgot this fact when I swiped my bus card to leave the airport and it showed that the trip would cost $33, leaving me with only $67 left. Then I remembered that $33 HKD is like $4 USD.

When I finally stepped off the bus downtown, my first thought was that Hong Kong reminded me of New York City, only cleaner and slightly less crowded. All around me were signs written in English and Chinese. It was the first time I had seen so much English since I left the States in August. It was an odd feeling, being able to read and understand the signs that surrounded me.

Since it was still early, only about 9:00 a.m., I decided to find breakfast since the last thing I had eaten was a muffin at the rest stop on the way to Incheon. I walked toward the harbor, thinking it was nearing 10:30 rather than 9:30 and that I could just tough it out until lunch. When I realized that my watch hadn’t updated to the new time zone, I settled on finding the Starbucks near the harbor. Besides, I was tired and in need of coffee and wifi.

Before finding the Starbucks, I found the clock tower that was built in 1915 as a part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway. The clock tower is all the remains of the Kowloon Station. The tower overlooks a beautiful harbor-front view. I took a moment to just breathe, enjoying the view of the part of the city that sits on Hong Kong Island opposit the mainland.

For lunch I went to The Green Common and ate a Beyond Burger for the first time in MONTHS. Living in Jinju there aren’t a lot of vegetarian alternatives, especially not veggie burgers, so I savor end every bite, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to splurge again on such a special meal. By the time I was done with lunch, I still had plenty of time to kill before I couldcheck into my hostel, so I wandered around, making my way toward where I’d be staying. All I wanted at this point was a shower and a nap. Once I was finally able to check in, I got both.

To finish out my first night in Hong Kong, I ate dinner at a small Indian food vendor, found a supermarket nearby to pick up food for breakfast the rest of the week, and made my way to the harbor front to watch the Symphony of Lights. This light show happened every night, complete with fireworks. The display lasts ten minutes, but people started lining the harbor front over an hour before the show began.

I watched the display, amazed that I was sitting in Hong Kong, surrounded by strangers from all over the world. My first day in Hong Kong was coming to a close, and I realized just how grateful I was to be sitting there. Everything that was happening was all because I took a chance that changed my life for the better.