Going by bus — Korean tax dollars at work

Friday, May 3

Got to Mungyeong by bus from Dong Seoul Station, a good place to hop by bus to points east and south of Seoul. Bus transportation is cheap, used by locals to get from place to place because of the convenience. Buses are clean, quiet, run frequently, and often are not crowded. Although the fast trains are popular, we have not had a bad experience with the bus system so far. We got from Seoul to the area halfway to Busan for about 13,000 won per ticket, which works out to perhaps $11.50 or $12 apiece with the current exchange rates. You can spend a lot more getting around Seoul for a day.
Not only is the bus super cheap, but the infrastructure to get you to the middle of South Korea (Kyungsangbukdo and Chungcheongbukdo) has got to be one of the world’s most expensive highway systems. If you’re not going over a gazillion-dollar bridge, you are going through a gazillion-dollar tunnel. The terrain is such that no road system could work out unless all this stuff was built to make the roads reasonably level. We felt the contrast when we went later by taxi over local roads in the Mungyeong area, where there are signs with squiggly arrows and stomach-wrenching switchbacks as the roads struggle up and down the mountainsides. Thanks, South Korean taxpayers, for making our travels cheap and fun.
The middle of Mungyeong city is one of those places where it looks like they were trying to do something in the way of a tourism plan at one point, and then they either ran out of money or sort of forgot what the plan was. Somehow or other, it is evidently not working out like they thought. Seven- or eight-floor alleged tourist hotels on what could be a very pretty riverfront are smack next to vacant lots piled with last year’s building and farming trash. Other vacant lots are planted with this year’s seedlings, trash piled at the edges, and miscellaneous junk covered with flapping black plastic. The center of town has nothing special to recommend it, except, of course, that the people were really nice. There is a hot spring spa, associated with the national park system (Mungyeong Onjon) which we did not try out. The spa seemed large, with very few customers.
Korea… you are either bowled over by the sheer artistry of everything, or completely baffled by the thoroughness of how things get trashed and commercialized. It is indeed a place of contrasts. The difference between the neglect of Mungyeong city and the careful planning and execution of the beautiful Chasabal Festival at nearby Mungyeong Saejae is just one example.
In retrospect, it would have been much better to stay in the nearby Mungyeong Saejae, a fun retail village that has apparently been popularized and expanded due to a imitation ancient village set used to film many of the network’s so-called “historical” dramas. Although the film village is an imitation one, it looks very permanent, and the buildings are convincing. It’s also very large, surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks, and the perfect place for a festival, particularly one devoted to an ancient art form like pottery. We tried to identify the settings for some of our more favorite historical dramas. Maybe it would have been pricier to stay at Mungyeong Saejae, I don’t know. But, it is probably a more happening place for tourists, full of fun stores, and barbecue restaurants with nice places to sit outdoors.

View of  Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu.

View of Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu.

On Friday, we climbed up a steep slope in Mungyeong city, past a fake climbing wall that appeared to be deteriorating, up to a traditionally-built pavilion overlooking the river, which afforded a beautiful vista up and down the river, and off to the distant mountain peaks. You sort of have to look past the sad collection of tourist hotels off the deteriorating riverfront boardwalk, but the views from many places in that area are spectacular.

Restaurant signage in Mungyeong.  Photo by Steebu

Restaurant signage in Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu

Later on, we looked long and hard at menus posted outside local restaurants, finally discerning that there is a well-known brand of pork in the region, and that another local specialty involves the mountain vegetables picked as shoots in the springtime (san-chae) and piled atop a local bi-bim-bap (bed of rice with some egg or meat). This makes a colorful dish that probably has a three zillion micronutrients in it from all the unusual greens. I ended up having a sort of a muk soup (muk is gelatinous, made from acorns, and is cut into strips or squares and served in a cool broth) with a lot of other veggie stuff. I found that my survival Korean does not extend to analyzing some of the local specialties, and we did end up ordering things and being surprised with what came to the table.
Cafe Old - a bright bohemian spot (with French lounge music) in Mungyeong.  Photo by Steebu

Cafe Old – a bright bohemian spot (with French lounge music) in Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu

We also ended up going for drinks at the Café Old, an oddly-named place on the main highway where cars can pull off and get coffee, beer, wine, and various Korean-influenced continental snacks (like the famous sweet potato pizza). Coffee places tend to be so cutely decorated that you forgive them for the rather high-priced drinks. Besides, the owner played French lounge lizard music that was cool, and served a rich version of the regional berry tea, omija cha, made from an extract which produces a warm cranberry citrus-like drink. It actually reminded me of the taste of lingonberries (which we used to have only for Swedish dinners on the holidays), and I wondered if the plants are at all related. There is no English language equivalent of the popular name of the berry although it has a Latin name (schizandra somethingorother). It was rejuvenating. After two days and still on a jet lag schedule, I take note of anything that gives me an energy hit, especially when it is also delicious.

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Going to mountain country

Friday, May 3

We are beginning our second day in Seoul, now heading by bus to Myeongyong for the ceramic bowl festival. There’s an almost-empty bus with a very quiet group of 95 percent young adults perhaps headed to the country for the weekend. It’s easier to tell with old people. When they are going on vacation, they wear their vacation clothes. Sometimes people will even have matching hiking outfits with special gear and backpacks. College-age adults look more or less the same no matter what they are doing.

It’s misty and smoggy heading south from Seoul, with nearby mountains almost greyed out from the moist weather and probably from air pollution.

Walking through Sajik Park from San Jang yogwan (our home base in Seoul).  Photo by Steebu

Walking through Sajik Park from San Jang yogwan (our home base in Seoul). Photo by Steebu

Yesterday in Seoul was a sparkling, green spring day, with purple and red azaleas sprouting from all the corners, a rainbow of paper
Jogyaesa Temple gets ready for Buddha's birthday...

Jogyaesa Temple gets ready for Buddha’s birthday…

Buddha lanterns strung up along the streets in preparation for Buddha’s birthday next week. People in Korea look busy and industrious – there are some on vacation getting off tour buses in the middle of the historical heart of Seoul near Kyungbukkung Palace – but not a whole lot. Kids are in school and working people have their noses to the grindstone.

After a cold and miserable Minnesota winter, followed by a dreary, cold spring with intermittent blizzards, coming into this environment of life breaking out everywhere is such a relief for the senses. I was a little giddy to see it all.

Despite jet lag, we walked, feeling almost wide awake, amid the colorful Seoul crowds – businessmen with ties flapping, teen girls in their sober school uniforms and day-glo running shoes walking arm in arm, moms with decked-out toddlers in kitty hats, young guys looking very hipster, career women clacking along in high heels and tights.

Martha copy editing in Seoul.  Photo by Steebu

Martha copy editing in Seoul. Photo by Steebu

Oh, Korea – the whimsy and creativity in the design of ordinary things is so omnipresent. I saw it yesterday in everything from kitty hats to bridge abutments. In front of our yogwan is Sajik Park, site of a set of buildings related somehow to the palace (a plaque explains but I cannot understand Korean well enough to make it out). It is a restored and improved to provide an environment for exercise more than historical interpretation. Looking at the ground as we left the park, I noticed iron grates in the path for drainage, the slats made in the shape of flying ducks.

Jogyaesa Temple.  Photo by Steebu

Jogyaesa Temple. Photo by Steebu

For dinner, we stopped in at a Buddhist restaurant across from Chogyesa temple, where you pay a set price for whatever they have on the vegetarian menu for the day. The chef made something I had never seen before – soy bulgogi – made with slices of some kind of texturized soy in a bulgogi marinade. The dish was decorated with small green chilis and carrots shaped like flowers.

It seemed like people were walking home more slowly than usual last night, with a golden twilight bathing all the flowering trees and many flats of new flowers set out, ready to pop into multitudes of planters all over the area of Kyungbokkung. People gazed around more, peered at their smartphones less, and tourists, including me, stopped dead on the sidewalk trying to get photos of the mountains and the roofs of the palace buildings. I was trying for a shot of the ridge of the palace, with the little critters and gargoyles marching down to the edge.

On a busy corner in the Kyungbokkung neighborhood, Steve suddenly got punched in the arm. It was Dohyun Kim, director of KoRoot, trying to get his attention. Pastor Kim heads up a guest house for Korean adoptees which is also engaged in civil rights advocacy for single mothers in Korea. We have stayed there when on business having to do with Korean adoptees. After expressing mutual incredulity at almost literally running into each other in a city of 12 million people, he told us about the upcoming third annual Single Mothers’ Day in Korea, an event created by the organization Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), to support the rights of single mothers in Korean society. He invited us to the events next Friday. We told him we would try to attend.

View of  Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu.

View of Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu.

Now, I am looking out the bus windows at the hillsides, a combination of greens from the palest pea green of brand new leaves to deep pine foliage. Here and there are delicate pink blossoms against black tree trunks and a few low bushes of lacy white. In some areas are fruit trees planted on hillsides, all blooming in purplish pink.
Martha eating mook soup from brass bowls in Mungyeong.

Martha eating mook soup from brass bowls in Mungyeong.

Spring foliage around Mungyeong.  Photo by Steebu

Spring foliage around Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu

Despite the high population of Korea, there are so many areas wilderness still, because of the slope and elevation of some areas. We are in the foothills of a big stretch of mountains now, south of Seoul, headed toward the area where the Olympics will be held in 2018 (Pyeongchang). I recall many elder Korean American friends talking about how young men in their families would escape into the mountains to avoid being conscripted into either the North Korean or the South Korean armies during the war. I heard it so many times that I often thought ‘how many mountains can there really be, that there would be so many stories of guys hiding there?’ Being in an area like this reminds me of just how much land is out there and how easy it would be to lose oneself in it. We are hoping to get a taste of that mountain wilderness in the coming days.
Pagoda overlook in Mungyeong.  Photo by Steebu

Pagoda overlook in Mungyeong. Photo by Steebu

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Korea Travel Prep (my practice post)

Things I’ve written in prep for the trip so far:

Pet care instructions

List of support people for the young adult holding down the fort

Packing list

List of things left undone at work

List of things left undone at home

List of things to buy for others

List of possible gifts

List of things still not in my suitcase that should be in there

Travel involves both taking on new responsibility, and absolving oneself of ordinary responsibilities for things and people left behind. The latter is the hardest, especially for those of us of a certain age with young adult children and loved ones who are elders.  The exercise of putting one’s affairs on hold is an important one.  Travel teaches us that, with a bit of discipline, we can extract ourselves temporarily from our day-to-day lives, and do something really different for a short time.  For me, it is a good thing that plane takes off at a certain time, and that I don’t get to decide if we are ready.  If I could do that, I would just never go.

Inevitably, once we are engaged in the travel, we always say to each other “why don’t we do this more often?” and “we have to remember how important it is to do this!” The shakeup of routine is a check on our sanity. It makes us reorder our responsibilities, think about things more simply, and appreciate small achievements, like hiking a mountain enjoying the view from the top.  Most importantly, we are proving to ourselves that we can make transitions.  If we can practice making transitions in our lives in small things, like travel, maybe we can transition to big things too.  Maybe we can undergo life transitions with anticipation, instead of reluctance.  Travel is like a practice run for bigger things.

I have probably the first digital camera ever made, but it still transfers images to my computer, so I am going to use it.  I also happen to be married to a very skilled news photographer (Stephen Wunrow, aka Steebu), which is a great thing when blogging, since  I can leave the serious photos to him.  I will take the blame for all of the goofy stuff I want to record in image form, leaving all the serious photography to Stephen

Hundreds of I-pads now in the international flight waiting area at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (Steebu photo)

Hundreds of I-pads now in the international flight waiting area at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (Steebu photo)

. Blog viewers will undoubtedly remember his great images far more than my blog entries. Oh, and this is my very first time blogging, so I hope to get better at it as time goes on.

On the other hand, we’re both seasoned Korea travelers.  Our traveling skills are advanced – in addition to photos, that part may be a benefit for readers too.  Tomorrow, off to Tokyo, then Seoul.  Little to no sleep for 24 hours, then a brand new schedule (ouch).  Not my favorite part of travel, but we can do this.

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