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.

Ulsan: A Festival of Lights

Early in December, my coworker asked me if I would be interested in taking a trip to Ulsan the weekend before the new year to go to their light festival. Wanting to see more of what Korea has to offer, I quickly agreed.

So in the week leading up to our planned trip, we arranged bus times and booked an airbnb before making our way to Ulsan early Saturday morning.

We arrived in Ulsan around noon. Stepping off the bus was a great relief for me, as I never quite outgrew my tendency to suffer from motion sickness. Shortly after arriving and my stomach settled, we decided the first order of business would be to find lunch. It turned out to be quite the challenge. Sam is gluten free, and I don’t consume any meat products, which leaves very few options we can both eat in Korea. Fortunately, there was an Indian restaurant nearby, so we braced ourselves against the wind and made our way out of the bus terminal and into the downtown.

Ulsan is a much larger city in Korea, with a population of about 1.1 million, making it much larger than Jinju. Known as an industrial powerhouse in Korea, Ulsan is home to the world’s largest automobile assembly plant, owned by Hyundai. But despite being an industrial city, Ulsan definitely had a lot to offer for anyone visiting the city for a day or two.

Sam and I went to Ulsan specifically for the Light Festival, a large display of lights set up in the Ulsan Grand Park. The displays at the festival included the Zodiac, Under the Sea, Superheroes, and a large maze of lights leading to a giant Moravian-style star. Dotted throughout the festival were tents with space heaters inside, which we much needed as it was a cold December night. It took just under an hour to make our way through the entire display.

Following the festival, Sam and I went toward the University in Ulsan to find something for dinner. We found a restaurant that had a variety of soups for Sam to choose from, and French fries for me. We stayed there for hours, telling stories, drinking soju, and talking about the various things that brought us to that very moment.

When the soju was gone and it was nearly midnight, we made our way to our airbnb. The next day, we would catch a mid-morning bus back to Jinju.

Traveling Korea: Andong (안동) & Pohang (포항)

On a sunny October weekend, I was lucky enough to take a trip to two new places in South Korea, Andong and Pohang. The trip was an overnight adventure planned out and taken by my school, so on a cold Saturday morning, I boarded a large travel bus full of students and those who work in the offices downstairs and headed to Andong, a small city about three hours away from Jinju.20170601_130817

Andong is located in the North Gyeongsang province in Korea, and is a cultural center in the country. One of the famous places in Andong is the Hahoe Folk Village, a traditional folk village located just outside of the city. Andong is also famous for its traditional folk masks, which were abundant in the folk village. In fact, part of the trip was making our own masks in the village! After completing the masks, we were given time to walk through the village before heading to lunch. After lunch, it was time to get back on the bus and head to our next destination: a Confucian temple. If I haven’t made it clear, I have a fascination with temples and Eastern philosophies, so I was happy I got to see another temple. The final stop in Andong was the Woryeonggyo Bridge, the longest wooden footbridge in Korea. The bridge was definitely a beautiful part of Andong and a great opportunity to take some photos.

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Following our excursion to the bridge, it was time to head toward our hotel in the city of Pohang. We drove for over an hour, stopping off to eat dinner. The food at this restaurant was fantastic. The cook prepared me a vegetarian-friendly soup with a spicy broth, plenty of veggies, noodles, and tofu. After dinner, it was time to get back on the bus and drive to the hotel. This was my first overnight stay somewhere other than Jinju since arriving, and I was curious to see what the hotel would be like. My room reminded me of the rooms I stayed in night after night as an admissions counselor when I went from one Hilton brand hotel to another.

After settling into the hotel, myself and the others set out to find a cafe, finding a cute place down the road with an outdoor seating area on the roof. It was the perfect place to have a latte and get some writing done.

In the morning, we boarded the bus once again and went for a hike. The views were spectacular and the weather was sunny and cool. At the base of the trailhead was another Temple (woo!) and a small festival. It was a great way to spend the morning. The afternoon was spent beside the ocean at the Homigot (호미곶). 20170602_150743They’re in the shape of two hands, one on land and one in the sea and symbolize the coexistence of humankind. It was an incredible afternoon and my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean. Being able to touch the Pacific Ocean may not seem significant to many, but to be able to see and feel something that always felt so far away was significant for me. I feel that my moments spent next to the ocean were symbolic of just how far I have come, and that I am coexisting in a new way.

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Every opportunity I have to travel Korea reinforces just how at peace I feel in making the decision to come here. Those who took the same journey told me how transformative this year would be for me, and I feel myself changing slowly and in small ways every day. I can’t wait to see what the rest of Korea has in store for me as I continue my travels in this amazing country I now call home.

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Traveling Korea is a series of posts about my various trips outside of Jinju. All posts on these travels can be found under the tag #travelingkorea.

Traveling Korea: Haeinsa 해인사

Despite living in another country without a car and with little working knowledge of the language, I have found that it’s quite easy to venture outside of my city and explore Korea. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Haeinsa (해인사), a temple founded in the year 802 and one of the three jewel temples in South Korea. Various national treasures are enshrined inside the temple. Perhaps the most notable is the Tripitaka Koreana, which are woodcarved blocks that make up the entirety of the Buddhist texts. There are over 81,000 blocks which took 16 years to complete. The temple has housed these texts since 1398. Despite this temple holding so many precious items, it is still an active temple.

해인사 sits atop a mountain in the Gayasan National Park (가야산) about 45 minutes outside of the town of Hapcheon (합천). Getting to the temple involved taking two buses, one from Jinju to Hapcheon and one from Hapcheon to Haeinsa. Hannah and I had about three hours after arriving in Hapcheon until the next bus to Haeinsa, so we decided to explore Hapcheon, only to stumble upon a smaller temple where an active service was taking place. This temple was also on a small mountain along the river that runs through Habcheon. Sitting along the river and listening to the Buddhist chants was calming and peaceful, despite my inability to understand what was being said.

Following this short walk, we decided it would be best to get some lunch and head to the bus terminal. Hapcheon is by far the smallest place I’ve gone in Korea so far, and the options for food were limited, so we settled on instant ramen in a convenience store. Then, we were off to Haeinsa. Our bus to Haeinsa took us through winding roads and even deeper into the mountains, reminding me of various scenes from the film Okja. When we made it to our stop, the bus driver was kind enough to tell us to get off the bus with a simple English phrase “Haeinsa, get off here.” We exited the bus only to find that the temperature in the mountains was noticably cooler, which I found to be a relief after a warm walk in the sun earlier.

Walking around the temple was an experience unlike any I had before. Throughout the property, there was different sculptures and buildings, all with their own purpose and function. Many of the smaller buildings housed statues of Buddha and it seemed that people could go into the buildings to spend some time in meditation and reflection. Walking throughout these buildings, I was overwhelmed with the sense of peace that often comes with visiting somewhere so sacred.

Despite the various obstacles that Hannah and I faced in getting to Haeinsa and the bus we almost missed to get home, our trip to Haeinsa was beyond worth it. Along with deepening my understanding of the new country I call home, this trip really sparked my interest in Buddhist teachings and philosophies. It only seems fitting that I find some books on Buddhism and make plans to visit the other two jewel temples hiding in the mountains of Korea.

 

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Traveling Korea is a series of posts about my various trips outside of Jinju. All posts on these travels can be found under the tag #travelingkorea.

Traveling Korea: Suncheon 순천

Chuseok is a Korean holiday that most western websites describe as “Korean Thanksgiving,” as it is a celebration of the Harvest and a time when the younger generations leave their homes in the city to visit their families in the countryside. This extended holiday meant that I got a five-day weekend, which presented itself as the perfect opportunity for me to venture outside of Jinju and explore more of Korea.

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I had planned on camping over Chuseok, but ended up getting a sinus infection just a few days before the trip, so instead, I turned to Google to find some day trips near where I live. After quite a bit of searching and multiple suggestions from other people, I settled on going to Suncheon ‎(순천). I was drawn to Suncheon’s Wetland Reserve area. The photos of the reed fields captivated me, and I wanted to see it for itself. I think in a way, it reminded me of the landscape where I grew up: natural beauty just beyond the edge of a city. After doing more research, I pinned down some prices and found out that along with getting into the Reserve, my ticket for the hike would also include a trip over to the National Garden. Between the hike and the garden, I had a full day planned.

So I scoured bus time tables and packed up my backpack, ready to hop on the bus at 9:20 the following morning. Looking at my map, the bus station looked closer than it was, but something pushed me out the door at 8:00 that morning, and I made it with time to spare. That time to spare was used jumping from window to window to buy my ticket because I wasn’t pronouncing the name of the city perfectly, but in the end I did get my ticket because I had written down where I was going in Hangul that morning and was able to show it to the woman at the bus station.

After I arrived in Suncheon, I spent the next hour waiting for another bus. It wouldn’t have been so long had I not questioned if I was at the right bus stop and walked to another one, only to miss the bus I was supposed to be on. But when the bus finally came back through, I was on my way to the Wetland Reserves.

The Reserves were even more beautiful that the photos. The walk through the reed field was peaceful, the sound of wind rustling through the tall reeds while crabs scurried around on the ground below the walkway. The journey through the reeds was a few kilometers, leading to a winding path up a mountain. From each overlook, you could see the reed fields, rice paddies, and wetlands. I even got to talk to some people along the way. A nice older woman asked me where I was from and if I was traveling alone. When I told her I was a teacher in Jinju, she got incredibly excited. Throughout the day, people would continue to ask me where I was from and share a friendly smile.

After making my way through the Wetland Reserves and sucking down an iced Americano while I charged my nearly dead phone, I boarded another bus to the National Gardens. Although a lot of the flowers were no longer blooming and boasted only their deep green leaves, it was still something to behold. Each section of the garden was dedicated to specific plants–some by type, others by the kind of garden you would find them in, and some by the region of the world where they came from. The gardens spread out in all directions, and after a long day of walking on my blistered feet, I did not get to venture through the whole garden, but I am determined to go back in late spring.

While I was nervous to venture outside of Jinju on my own, I’m glad I found my way to such a beautiful part of the country. It won’t be long now before I hop on another bus and journey somewhere else.

 

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Traveling Korea is a series of posts about my various trips outside of Jinju. All posts on these travels can be found under the tag #travelingkorea.