Friday, July 31, 2009

Golgulsa Temple Stay (Third Day)

At 4:00 a.m., crawling up a hill in the dark, you begin counting the hours until you leave boot camp temple. Your legs move out of stubborn will but remind you with every step that they'd rather not.

Eventually you make it to chanting, and follow along on the slow chant even though you're reading hangeul. Feeling brave, you try the same on the fast chant (for the musicians, think: syllables at around 140/minute or so) and quickly are lost. Out of boredom you make up your own words, partially cathartic, and partially reviewing recently-learned Korean words:

paegop'ayo, p'igonhaeyo,
sundubu chige meoggoship'eoyo, chagoship'oyo
ilbangt'onghaeng means "one-way street"
pissan ieyo, kakka juseyo
man-on, man-on, kakka juseyo
tari apayo, manhi apayo

I'm hungy, I'm tired
I want to eat soft tofu stew, I want to sleep
"ilbang tonghang" means one-way street
that's expensive, give me a discount
10k won, 10k won, give me a discount
my legs hurt, they hurt a lot

And so on. The second full day, apart from the tiredness (lack of sleep) and aching body wasn't terribly distinguishable from the first but for the 108 bows.

The 108 bows, or baek-pal bae, are done to show humility, contemplate mistakes, and reflect on the decision to live rightly. These are not waist-bows. These are feet-together, in a controlled motion (read: using the legs) fall to the knees, press head to the floor, stand up in another controlled motion (same leg muscles), and repeat for 20 minutes bows. By halfway through your cushion is sweat-stained by your forehead. And then you have lunch, archery, chores, and training.

An aside on archery would fit nicely here, so I'm going to throw it in. It's fun. It's exhausting. Just pulling the bowstring back takes a fair bit of arm and back strength. Letting it fly with accuracy while you're shaking from the effort isn't easy by any means. Proper technique is essential--small failures result in scraped thumbs (from the arrow, your thumb acts as a bridge), or reddened arms (from the bowstring snapping them).

The rest of this story is pretty much the same, and will be omitted, as I am trying to keep this brief because there was a centipede on the cubicle next to me in the PC bang, now it is out of sight, and I fear it will pop up from the keyboard when I am not looking, and I will scream. More on Golgulsa and my return to Gyeongju (and the very excellent Yangdong folk village) soon.

[Pic: Sunmudo training center.]

Golgulsa Temple Stay (Second Day)

We were told that we would need to get up at 4:00 a.m. (with our "wake-up call") and could not be late for chanting at 4:30, so naturally I set a back-up alarm.

There was no need.

A monk hitting a wooden block and chanting quite loudly circumambulating our room at 4:00 sharp. We hiked up three stories or so on a steep hill to meet the

Schedule, in brief:

4:30 chanting.
5:00 sitting meditation (30 minutes)

At 5:30, we did walking meditation and stretched when we reached a clearing at the bottom of the field. We then hiked back up the hill to have our breakfast.

I should take an aside here to marvel at Golgulsa's layout. It is truly a place where everything is uphill, both ways. The temple is structured like a V, with the cafeteria building at the bottom the V. It is uphill to each peak of the V, and the dorms are halfway up the left side. The dorms are, however, beneath the temple where morning chant is held, and morning chant is beneath the pagoda where walking meditation first goes. Hence you go uphill to chant and uphill to walking meditation. Then, having gone downhill during walking meditation, you go uphill for food and then further uphill (to the "chant room") for 108 bows.

These are not tiny hills. These are three-to-six story hills that you would not want to go down on on anything with wheels. These hills hurt.

What about training? Well, that's up the other side of the "V." (the right side). So, going from your dorm to the training center means going downhill, to go up, and going back involves the same (but more uphill).

Returning to my first full day, we had our breakfast (rice, kim chi, and tofu--tofu was a once-a-day treat), and had an hour and a half of "relaxed" sunmudo training. By relaxed, I mean there were spells of sitting and lying meditation. We did not kick or punch. We stretched and held poses. Poses like supporting your whole body on your forearms and tiptoes. For a full minute. Or until you collapsed. Nice, kind, easy, "relaxed" training.

Then, instead of returning to the chant room to do 108 bows (explained later), we were told we would go hiking. A compatriot who was finishing a month-long stay said, "it's got to be better than bowing," and we were off. We were hiking up a trail about 200 vertical meters, and took about 90 minutes total time to climb the hill, turn around, and descend through another path. Along the way we saw mushrooms of varying colors, from tan and gray to a rather bright purple-pink, and some so sizable they would substitute for small birdbaths. We looked out on forested hills and small villages, and talked briefly in broken Konglish. When we got back we were too late for tea but ready to go to lunch.

Needless to say, at this time, I thought my legs hurt. The next two days would teach me a lot.

Actually, this day would teach me a lot. We had archery (fun!) at 2:00, chores (weeding) at 3:00, and dinner (rice, kim chi, and something) after a short nap. Then we had "hard" sunmudo training. Bear walking on your knuckles is painful, the same on fingertips is incredibly difficult, and duck walking after a day of hills ... well I have to admit I wussed out and just walked like a human, despite some respiteful glares from our instructor.

Then it was time for bed.

The next day I would start to appreciate my legs more, and make up my own chanting words.

[Pic: Mushroom convex and large enough to be a small birdbath, diamater probably around my waist size (30" / 75 cm).]

Golgulsa Temple Stay (Overview, First Day)

Monday at about 4 p.m: I arrived at Golgulsa, a fairly secluded temple far to the East of Gyeongju. Golgulsa is most famous for teaching Sunmudo to outsiders. What is Sunmudo? A combination of Taekwondo and buddhist principles. A combat-ineffective, gymnastic, incredibly demanding martial art designed to harmonize body and mind and challenge the practitioner.

Pros and Cons, in short:

Pro: Best kim chi I've ever had, and damn good rice.
Con: For every meal, inluding breakfast.
Pro: Meals included in room fare.
Con: See above.
Pro: Excellent martial arts training.
Con: For three hours a day on top of all the hill walking you're doing. Not optional.
Pro: 40k won (per day) for everything.
Con: Late for anything=1080 bows.

In detail:
Golgulsa is a martial arts temple, without a doubt. Punctuality is revered, from the 4:30 a.m. chanting to the 10:20 108 bows to the 8:30 p.m. training before bed. Golgulsa specializes in "turning around" troubled children, with a combination of excessive demands and infinite patience. I personally witnessed four slacker high-schoolers sleep through things and show up late, to be told, kindly, that they now had more work to do.

As for the rest of us? Well, as I said, I began my day at about 5 starting with dinner. The finest kim chi I've had, rice, and some sides. A few hours later was training. "Excited" would understate my mindset.

The session began with stretching and "balance poses." The instructor grabbed one foot with one hand and stuck the other hand up in the air. We followed suit. He extended his leg to be perfectly straight, at a 90 degree angle. I tried my best. To emphasize that this difficult pose was only a step, he then moved his extended leg so that it was perfectly vertical. He was doing standing splits in front of us while we hopped and moaned, trying to extend our legs.

But then stretching ended and punching began. One punch at a time, easy. Three, getting tired. Five? Was tired already. Ten, in rapid succession? Gave all I had. Felt it in my shoulders for the next two days.

Then we kicked. We held the kicks at first, learning odd squatting transitional poses, and clapping our hands together inbetween kicks (we then would extend our hands with our legs, or splay our hands to our sides for added effect). Hana, dul, set, net .., we did several sets of ten, until thoroughly exhausted. We ended with tai-chi like slow-motion poses, focusing on breathing and relaxation.

Having survived the training, I was exhilirated. Gradually over the next few days my muscles would remind me that 90 minutes was a far cry from 4 days.

[Pic: The stone buddha carved into Golgulsa.]

A Museum Without Walls, Part 3: Gyeongju (Folk Craft Village, Bulguksa, and to Golgulsa)

Monday in Gyeongju was my last day getting up after 4:00 a.m., my last day not having kim chi for breakfast, and my last day feeling my legs (and liking it) for four days that went far too fast but seemed like an eternity.

I got up at a reasonable hour and took a bus to Bulguksa, a famous temple East of Gyeongju. Like most temples, this one has been largely rebuilt, but rebuilt to exacting specifications. Like most temples, it sits atop a wooded hill (like the hill I would soon curse) and looks out upon beautiful scenery, has astounding sculptures and architecture, and all in all was an amazing, and reasonably priced (4k won), experience.

Bulguksa was beautiful, if swarming with tourists, and this entry is mostly an excuse to place-save for picture links in the future. My apologies.

(FYI the "Folk Craft Village" was great for shopping, but not for folk existence--the Yangdong folk village in Part 4 was far better.)

[Pic: Bulguksa]

A Museum Without Walls, Part 2: Gyeongju (Anapji, observatory, Museum, Namsan)

My second day in Gyeongju was a predictable but enjoyable tourist's path through the "major" hits.

First, I should really lavish more praise on Gyeongju. It is to Korea what Kyoto is to Japan: Not the first city you'd think of, but easy to navigate, tourist-friendly, and historically rich.

Walking slightly further than I had yesterday, I initially saw (even more) historical burial mounds set against mountain forestry in the background. Having grown accustomed to such scenery, I proceeded quickly to Cheongseomdae, the East's oldest observatory. Though appearing little more than an awkward oversized stone pillar, each piece is carefully thought out--the base, each story of the tower, and its facing all are calculated to correlate to months, days, and the year.

Shortly past Cheongseomdae was Anapji Pond, and the path to Anapji was a trail through varied gardens, including water lilies so plentiful that the waterway was hidden. Anapji itself (on a vacation weekend) was a very crowded tourist draw, but still the faithfully reconstructed buildings reflecting off the pond were quite beautiful, and there were well-kept and kindly displayed Shilla-era relics (from incense burners to cups to a game die) within the building.

The third stop was the Gyeongju National Museum. Having relegated only a few hours to this museum, I could only view a couple of the buildings, and listen to the recording of a temple bells beautiful and haunting overtones. (More on that, and TV coverage of it, in a later post.) Suffice to stay its collection, being spread out among multiple buildings is less imposing than the National Museums', but still is rich and English-friendly.

Now it was time for lunch. A nearby place offered ssam-cheong-shik (rice eaten in greens with lots of side dishes) at a reasonable price and then I was off to Namsan.

Namsan is reachable by both bus or foot from Gyeongju, but not knowing the bus routes (and having an abundance of energy), I went by foot. The small portion that I hiked in 3 hours (the Lonely Planet has courses spanning 8 hours) included a stone buddha sculpture in a buddhist nunnery, and Korea's largest collection of buddhist relief carvings--on a single rock (but yes, a different rock from the aforementioned sculpture). Trails were not particularly well marked but locals were helpful. Bathrooms were ... special.

Which brings me to another point. The hostel I stayed in these two nights was also "special." Generally well rated (but docked for cleanliness), I can assure you the detractors are not being overly critical. No bedbugs, no roachs, but that's about all I can say. It was a bed, though, which was more than I'd have the next three days, as I was about to be the victim (though glad) of a boot camp billed as a "temple stay."

[Pictures forthcoming.]

[Ed: Pic from the National Museum.]

A Museum Without Walls, Part 1: Gyeongju (Introduction)

As you may have noticed and probably don't care, I haven't posted in a while. The reason is, I have been in and aroung Gyeongju, touring on my vacation.

Gyeongju is, according to the lonely planet, known as the "museum without walls" due to the incredible amount of visible history in and around the city. Gyeongju itself was the capital of the Shilla kingdom, the kingdom that unified the three kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms period (1st to 6th century) and led through the Unified Shilla period in the 7th through 10th centuries. As Buddhism was the official religion of Shilla, there are ample temples and buddhist relics in addition to the tombs of royalty and scientific advances that can be observed here.

My first day, I took the train from Wonju (17k won, 4 hours, nice views and a 1000 won/10 minute massaging chair available) and walked through Noseo-dong and Tumuli Park, both of which house Shilla tomb mounds viewable by the public. Royal tombs themselves are, externally, little more than large hills. The wooden coffin is at the center, followed by layers of brick and mud, and centuries of green overgrowth that today is nothing more than grass in a park. However, within Tumuli Park there is also Cheonmachong, an excavated tomb which visitors can enter to see replicated structure and remnants of a king's burial chamber.

Near these parks is Kisoya, a wonderful fusion Japanese restaurant. The staff spoke enough English to substitute vegetables for fish in my meal and the Korean-brewed sake-like-drink was refreshing, if a bit pricey (6k won for a small bottle).

The next day is the real story, as it was then, with more time, that I saw Anapji Pond (a reconstructed group of historical buildings), the Gyeongju national museum, the Far East's oldest observatory, and hiked around the Namsan mountains to the South.

[Pictures forthcoming when I can upload them, I'm at a PC bang near the Gyeongju bus terminals and have no usb cable or card reader with me.]

[Ed: Picture of tomb from Gyeongju.]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thngs to do in Seoul, Part 4: The National Museum

The National Museum

***The Archaelogical Gallery

“There’s too much stuff there. After a while you just think, ‘It’s another broken cup. Great.’ "

My friend’s take is a rather popular way of seeing the National Museum. Six wings large, the permanent collection is quite imposing and not something that can be seen in full, even in a 10-hour day.

But you don't have to see all of it--the price is right. (See subsequent post.)

And besides, if you like broken cups, and rusted iron swords, the archaelogical wing can't be beat. When I went there I found myself learning about not only Korean history, but history of the world. The evolution of societies from stone to metal was reinforced in well-translated English; the examples were purely Korean, illustrating the change from period to period with "broken cups" and "rusted swords."

Most of my three trips (timeline detailed infra) were spent in this gallery, and I learned much of the Three Kingdoms, the Goreyo period (from which Korea gets its Western name), Unified Silla, and the ever-well-represented Joseong kingdom.

Of the five other hallowed halls of this museum, I have only explored two, due to the time constraints. (Three trips totalling roughly eight hours.)

***Historical Gallery

It has history. Lots of it. Sadly when I went the Hageul wing was closed, prohibiting me from learning about one of the world’s most recently invented languages. However there were numerous other exhibits, including a temporary exhibition about the “Tea-Horse Road,” a road traveled by Tibetans to central China to exchange their legendary horses for fine tea.

Most of what I saw was on my way out the door (it was nearly closing time), so now I’ll move on to something I saw in much greater detail:

*** Second Fine Arts Gallery

The buddhist art inside the Second Fine Arts Gallery is fantastic. Fantastic. Fantastic.

The collection is expansive but inclusive, from two-inch undetailed sculptures created during buddhism's prohibition to larger-than-life stone bodhisattvas, there is no better place (even my beloved Buddhist Art Museum) to explore Korean buddhist art.

The presentation of the works cannot be matched. I've strolled through museums too open to feel as though you were seeing anything; more commonly, I've felt overwhelmed by the amount of information surrounding me (as is easy to do in historical museums). Rarely, however, have I stepped through a narrow hall to revere a singular sculpture in meticulous lighting and feel my jaw drop.

That explanation of my sensation does little justice to the Pensive Bodhissatva that occupies his own room in the National Museum. The playful downcast look and detailed sculpting justifies its inclusion in the expansive National Treasure collection but it was the museum’s tasteful presentation that took its viewing up another step, to a truly emotional and memorable experience.

***Best part about the museum.

IT'S FREE MOST OF THE YEAR. I forget the exact dates, something like April to October, but most of the year, it is free. During the heat and torrential downpours of summer I don't really care to be outside anyway.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"White Bean Special" Fusion Food Set to Take World By Storm

"Everyone please bow your heads and pretend to be serious."

--Inignok (Aqua Teen Hunger Force)

I have created fusion food.

Korean-American (French?) fusion food.

It is low-calorie. It is a balance of delicious bread, vegetable, and seasoning. It is portable and delectable ... the perfect lunch or a luxurious dinner.

(Okay, more the perfect lunch.)

It is "The White Bean Special."

It has no beans.

It is not special, but its deliciosity (mashi-iseyo, in Korean) has been confirmed by more than one discerning source.

It is called the White Bean Special because I am white, my surname is Bean, and my mom told me I was special too much in my childhood.

The recipe is as follows:

First Approach:


* One Piece Sandwich Bread

* Two pieces "seasoned laver" a/k/a "kim" a/k/a oiled and salted seaweed, the "large" (approximately paper-sized) sheets.


Place the seaweed sheets on top of each other. Fold them in long thirds ("envelope fold") and then fold them in half lengthwise (the perpendicular direction). The sheet should cover approximately half of the bread. Place on the bread, then fold the bread in half. Eat and enjoy.

Second Approach:


*Two Slices of Baguette

*One piece of "seasoned laver"


Fold the laver in half the long way, then half again the opposite way. Fold the result in thirds or fourths as suits your baguette slices. Place upon one baguette slice, and top with the other. Eat and enjoy.

(I am assuming that this contribution to Korean global image and international relations will net me many honorary degrees, prizes, and even offerings of citizenship, but only time will tell.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Things to do in Seoul, Part 3: The Chicken Art Museum (One of Five Small Museums)

Last post I mentioned that, to my knowledge, the only place you can see multiple full-size canvas depictions of kim chi is in the Kim Chi Museum.

Now I would like to introduce an entire floor of chickens.

Live chickens? No, silly. Chicken art.

You see, chickens are birds of honor. Chicken sculptures are affixed to coffins in funerary processions and are thought to help bring the soul to the afterlife, like crows in other mythologies.

Roosters (the Korean language does not distinguish between male and female) furthermore are seen as very noble, feeding and defending their hen and young.

And now I reiterate: An entire floor of chicken art, complete with (excellent) English-speaking personal guide awaits you. But where?

Where, you ask, can one find this beautiful display? An elusive corner of the imposingly large (but worthwhile as I will explain) National Museum? An art district?

No. (But the art district guess was close.)

In—wait for it—The Chicken Art Museum.

The Chicken Art Museum is one of five small private museums near Bukchon (hanok village near Insa-dong) which sell “one pass tickets.” The tickets are good for quite some time (weeks or was it a month?) and are quite cheap (10 or maybe 15 thousand won—under 15 bucks).

Besides the Chicken Art, there is the Embroidery Museum (amazing), the Folk Art Museum, and a few more. The Buddhist Art museum (which was what initially drew me in) has an impressive two-floor (admittedly small floors) collection of mostly Joesong Era paintings and sculptures, and a historical meditation wheel that you can actually crank (read: you are allowed to touch and operate a piece of history). In one day at a moderate pace you can see all five museums.

But why not spend a whole day with the foul? It seems only fair.

[Picture of Chicken Art Museum exterior forthcoming when I can figure out how to get it off my phone.]

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Things to do in Seoul, Part 2: Kim Chi Museum

Let me be the first to say that I find kim chi conceptually disgusting. "Fermented cabbage with peppers? Where do I sign up ... to leave?" But the pungent digestive had has gradually grown on me, and if you're near CoEX mall (Samseong subway stop) in Seoul, this museum is worth a visit.

The entry fee is cheap (around 3000 Won, or under $3, if I remember right) and for a meager couple thousand won on top of that you can take home a book ("Hot Pepper, Kim Chi, and Korean") as a souvenir.

The museum itself houses kim chi art (paintings), information about the numerous types of kim chi (ingredients, preparation methods, service seasons, etc.), and even a tasting room.

If you can negotiate the proper date and time to revisit the museum, you can even be a part of a kim chi making workshop. But such workshops are available at many locations in Korea (including, I'm assuming, several homes should you befriend the right locals).

But where else were you going to see a full canvas filled with photorealistic brush strokes depicting a pickled vegetable?

That's right, nowhere.

The Most Important Thing in or near Seoul or in Korea for That Matter: Nanum

If you are in Korea on a Saturday when they are giving tours in your language, go to Nanum. Yes, I am telling you to go to Seoul despite my last post. Yes, it will take most of your Saturday. No, it will not educate you on architecture or history before 1950. Yes, it is well off the beaten path. And yes, if you buy postcards there you will have trouble deciding who to send them to.

It is, however, possibly the most important thing to do in Korea.

So what is Nanum? It's the "House of Sharing." House of sharing what? The war past. But not the usual numbers-and-brutality war past. Very specific pasts. Very disturbing pasts.

It is a house where a few surviving halmonis (elderly women, lit., "grandmothers") tell their tales of being abducted and forced into sexual slavery in World War II.

But they weren't abducted by just anyone. They were abducted under orders of the Japanese government. (For those who don't know, Korea was a Japanese colony in the years before WWII.)

The Japanese government does not admit that this happened.

Despite numerous scholars (mostly Japanese, employed by mostly Japanese universities) finding and following paper trails to show that the girls were accounted for, like property, within the Japanese army, despite further paperwork showing the minimal medical care (designed to keep them alive and little more) was provided by the army, despite the testimony of Japanese soldiers that the rapes were government-sanctioned, and despite the living testimony of these halmonis, the Japanese government will not admit that official responsibility exists for the systemized kidnapping and rape.

The Japanese government, much like an insurance company, has offered money without admission of liability.

That money was rejected.

Some Japanese officials have made their denials particularly stern, sticking to the story that the women were willing prostitutes who followed the camps of soldiers to sell themselves.

The women tell a slightly different story. One of being taken at gunpoint by Japanese soldiers (sometimes, sadly, both Japanese and Korean soldiers). One of having their arms burned for sport by the cigarettes of high-ranking officials. Of serving fifty (50) soldiers in a day at the rate of ten minutes a soldier and the next soldier waiting, pants disengaged, outside the door.

As stated, the paper trail corroborates the women's version and refutes the Japenese government's denial.

Though the living women who have cut through the shame to tell their story are few, the trails (of paper or soldier testimony) of abducted women are in the thousands--spanning several countries and no doubt hundreds of casualties.

The Nanum grounds (donated by a buddhist organization just a few years ago) also house a museum that stores documentation of the official nature of the abductions and rapes, as well as disturbing recreations of their quarters.

The museum ends with the artwork of the halmonis, which you can purchase in postcard or book form. But as said, the face of the person to whom you sent a painting postcard would not likely rise, if that person was capable of empathy.

Luck permitting, you will then meet a halmoni. Health failing, the days of live testimony are growing rarer and rarer; failing live testimony, you will watch a DVD with their testimonies contained therein.

When I went, I was lucky enough to be invited into the house afterwards. To meet women whose bodies had been through multiple transplants (due to untreated diseases years ago), whose wrinkles were many, yet who still were spry enough to demand money when the tour guide suggested a photograph, and who insisted I sit as they stand and offered me tea.

Every Wednesday they protest outside the Japanese embassy. Just this year, the State of California passed a resolution acknowledging their suffering and officially demanding an apology from Japan. George W. Bush had the audacity to accept an official apology from Japan, and the number of people--Korean, Japanese, or otherwise--who are demanding that apology be redirected to those who were offended is growing. After a few hours spent (and a donation of your choice), you can join their ranks.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Get Out of Seoul (an Intro to Things to do in Seoul)

Traveler's Tip # 1:

Get out of Seoul.

My previous travel posts have one thing in common: They both took place outside of Seoul. When I head to Gyeongju over break, that's not Seoul. Seoraksan (another popular mountain) isn't in Seoul, neither is Jeju (the most popular vacation isle), or beloved Chiaksan (the mountain my dear Wonju is closest to).

Staying in Seoul is easy, but if you came to Korea to see Korea, why are you still in Seoul? Nonetheless you’ll probably fly into and out of Seoul, and there are a few very good things to there, so the next several posts I have concern the worthwhile things to do in Seoul. Thus, while suffering from (or preparing for) jet lag and unwilling to explore and see most of Korea, a traveler can make the most of their time in the capital.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Korean Mosquitos are [Very] Evil; Korean Lesson

Korea is great. It's filled with forests and trees and hills and rice paddies. But in summer all that standing water (it's the rainy season) means a fleet of mosquitos.

These mosquitos are not your average mosquitos. They are poison-filled ninjas. You won't even feel them bite you. But the huge hive that emerges will wake you up at one a.m. scratching your foot off.

Repellent has predictably become my best friend and perfume.

Finally, thanks to rapidly advancing Korean, including the "duh" verb ending (to tell someone something you think they already should have known), I now offer you:

Mogi-ga nappajanayo! (Mosquitos are bad.)
Mogi-ga choa haji anhajanayo! (I don't like mosquitos.)
Mogi-ga an choa haejanayo! (I don't like mosquitos.)
Mogi-ga sarheojanayo! (I don't like mosquitos.)
Mogi-ga, saljima! (Mosquito, die! (lit., Mosquito, don't live!))

No Meat Doesn't Mean No Meat

This is from an actual conversation, with what I would consider to be a realtively intelligent and open-minded group of women:

"I don't eat meat."

"Oh really?"


"Do you like chicken?"

"I don't eat chicken."

(Muttering in disbelief.)

"What about pig?"

"I also don't eat pig. I don't eat any meat."

(Group muttering in disbelief; some discussion of where they could go that I could eat.)

You see, in Korea, especially in non-Seoul Korea, vegetarianism is a relatively new thing. Not eating something, especially something as expensive as meat, is strange. Furthermore, "meat" doesn't mean "meat." It means cow meat. Chicken meat is something else, and pig? Let's just say that the attached picture (coming soon) is of a "veggie roll." And yes, that is ham and imitation crab inside of it.

As we were hiking down a mountain and going to go to lunch, I thought it might be a good idea to mention to the group that I did not eat ANY animal products, so I went on:

"I also don't eat fish."

"No fish? What about fish cake?"

"No fish cake, either. No seafood."

"No clam?"

"No clam or shrimp."

At this point, the entire group became intently focused on, as nearly as I could tell, discussing where we were going to eat. I had made the choice nearly impossible, or so I thought, and wanted to explain that I could just eat side dishes or snack a bit, but my Korean was not that good. (And Koreans would never let such a polite offering be accepted, anyway.)

Going on to seafood, generally if you say you don't eat fish or seafood you can avoid the seafood but sometimes it's not considered food--e.g., shrimp put in tofu stew is "flavoring," not serving you shrimp. So you have to ask for it to be taken out. And then sometimes you'll be told the dish can't be made (as you are removing an essential flavor) or the shrimp simply won't be taken out because your Korean was that bad and no-one could understand you.

Oh, and fish cake. You see, fish cake isn't fish. It's fish cake. This, logically, makes a fair bit of sense. Those frozen fish sticks you buy in the west have very little to do with actual fish except that at some point in time, some meager offering of fish parts was heavily processed to make them. As far as I can tell, Korean fish cake is the same thing, except that Koreans generally don't recognize that any fish went into the production of fish cake.

In Korea, I have to thank my lack of commitment and dedication. Normally my tendency to half-ass the difficult things in life has cost me dearly, but being a "sensible" vegan (who will pick the potatoes out of chicken stew or pick the clams and shrimp out of tofu stew and set them aside) has kept me from starvation. Or rather, kept me from a boring and unhealthy just-rice-and-kim-chi diet.

Soon, though I hope to offer a catchy way of getting all those things out of your meal: English Songs for Vegetarians in Korea, or whatever catchy title I can think of by the next update.

An Inflatable Tour Next to No Man's Land, Part 6

Part 6: Rafting Down the Hant’ang River

Once we, or rather, the meat eaters, were stuffed (and we were placated), we donned life vests, helmets, and grabbed some paddles. We were packed into a very hot bus for a ride to the launch point.

The guide was quite patient, teaching us how to listen for “ready,” (jumbi), “start” (shijak), and count to four in Korean as we stroked … luckily tae kwon do had previously taught most of us these words.

Then, there was much beauty. I didn’t have my camera (hello … water?) but the master had a disposable one so I’ll see if I can get some pictures from him.

We rafted down rather peaceful water in a deep canyon with many trees and nice rock formations. The water wasn’t exciting (hardly a rapid to see), but that was more than acceptable given the scenery.

When we got bored, our guide had us do “activities” such as shaking the raft from side to side and attempting to recreate the scene from “Titanic.” (The former was fun, the latter results in two people in the water. Consistently.)

Eventually we came to a spot where we pulled our boat over and went for a swim (with much splashing and dunking) in pleasantly cool water before rafting the rest of the way downriver and heading home.

Pictures will come when I get them from the instructor.

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Inflatable Tour Next to No Man's Land, Part 5

Part 5: The Labor Party Building, and Lunch

After the museum, we went to the ruins of a building that the North used to torture party opponents before the war had ended. All we can see is the skeleton of the building, but signs tell us that various "instruments" (wire, screws, guns, knives) were found in the back and that there used to be a saying, "No one who goes in comes out a whole person."

But that wasn't nearly as depressing as it should be, because next we left for the "second most delicious food in the word." If you are a vegan, the second most delicious food is rice, kim chi, and another side dish (I forgot what). The meat-eaters enjoyed large servings of a chicken stew with potatoes and carrots. (I have previously picked the potatoes and carrots out of this dish and must admit it is grand.)

(Photo: The ruins of the Labor Party Building)