A Travellerspoint blog

A "Seoul"ful New Years

welcoming in a New Year and new adventures

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View New Years 2011 & Korean Home on nlpolyak's travel map.

Well, well, well... It has been far too long since I last updated the blog. For the sake of your reading pleasure, I will not tell you all the details of the holidays only that they were spent in good company and made for a unique experience, leaving us each a bit more thankful for all we have, especially our families and each other! There were some highlights that include Joe being Santa Claus, experiencing my first Korean wedding, our first, modest Christmas tree, presents from home, and skyping with our families.

There are plenty of pictures online from the Christmas season that you can see here.

For Christmas, I planned a trip to Seoul for Joe and I. The last time I was in Seoul was for training and it had left a bad taste in my mouth. I spent my first week in Korea traipsing around a huge city with 200 lbs of luggage, nonstop rain, and 100% humidity finding the city to be nothing more than a really spread-out city that could not compare to NYC in any way, shape, or form. I wanted to give Seoul a real shot so when I got a much needed break from school for 4 days for New Years (we don't get your typical ten day Christmas break) it seemed like the perfect time. VERY early Thursday morning we headed up to Seoul via the train. Although we could have taken the bullet train for double the fare and would have gotten to Seoul in 3 hours, we opted for the economical route which was a six hour journey. Six long hours later we were dumped into the chaos of Seoul Station. (Imagine Grand Central at 5 pm times about 100 and that is a typical afternoon in Seoul Station.) We got ourselves T-Money cards so we were armed to traverse Seoul's ridiculous subway system for the next few days and we made our way to the Alpha Guest House. We stayed in the Sinchon area of Seoul which is located near three universities and five minutes from the subway making it easy for me to drag Joe to every museum and tourist site possible in the next four days! We were greeted by the friendly manager and showed to our quaint but very clean and suitable room. After nearly no sleep, no food, and a long train ride, Joe was about ready for a nap but do you think I could allow that?!?! NO, NO, NO!! There were places to go and people to see, subways to be ridden, pictures to be taken... Joe quickly learned this would by no means be the relaxing getaway that perhaps we both needed!

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Seoul's Subway Map... are you kidding me?!?!

Before heading anywhere we stopped for lunch. After promising my mother I would not go to the DMZ, the first thing I did was book a tour for us to go to the DMZ early the next day. Sorry Mom but it was taunting me too much to deny! Our first stop was to head over to Changdeokgung Palace which is considered one of the "Five Great Palaces" built in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty. We headed over there just to watch the large doors of the palace close in our faces... note to any travelers: the damn palaces close at 5 PM SHARP!! Luckily, the palace was located right next door to Bukchon Village. This beautiful neighborhood, which is situated between two palaces, has the largest group of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes, or hanok, in Seoul. The area is a maze of narrow alleyways which you could easily get lost in, full of beautifully restored homes, courtyards, traditional markets and stores, restaurants, art galleries, cafes, as well as traditional workshops where you can try your hand at things such as Korean embroidery, making folk kites and Korean liquor, fabric dying, among many others. Unfortunately all the workshops closed at 5 PM as well so we didn't get the opportunity to try any of these things this time but it was nice to walk around and feel as though we were experiencing the Korea that existed in the early 1900's. Unable to handle the cold anymore we headed into an Ice Gallery. (Counterproductive, I know, but we got to stand in front of the heater in the lobby for awhile). They claim to be the world's first Ice Gallery that is open year round. With a claim like that, Joe and I got our hopes up real high! Low and behold, after paying our admission fee we were essentially taken into a basement with old wooden rafters and were the only two people in the over glorified walk in freezer. We couldn't help but laugh... it seems the first ice gallery in the world, surely didn't equate to the best ice gallery in the world. That being said, since we had the place to ourselves we could goof around and take our time going into the ice igloo, pretending to pee in the ice toilet, checking out the ice hotel room, visiting ice temples, getting served at the ice bar, and going down the ice slide (well Joe just got stuck). If nothing else we got a laugh out of it!

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Feeling a bit defeated and exhausted at this point we headed back out to brave the cold and went to Insadong for dinner. Insadong is a very busy, traditional Korean street. There is one main street with plenty of alleyways off each side to explore. We ended up in a big 6 story, open mall that had lots of cute little shops and lights and overlooked a street full of traditional Korean restaurants. We had a seafood pajeon, or pancake, and a hot skillet of rice, "exotic vegetables", and seafood. It was entirely too much food but delicious. We were now ready to head back to the guest house for some sleep before another early alarm to head to the DMZ.

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^^ the before and after effects of our meal ^^

The next day, New Years Eve, we bundled up tight and headed to the DMZ bright and early. Our first stop was Imjingak Park where we needed to be registered with the Korean Army. While we waited to get our clearance we were able to walk around a bit. The park is located 7 km from the actual line of Demarcation and was built to console those from both sides of Korea who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends, and families because of the division of the country. There was definitely a somber feeling to the area and the two main things that we saw there were a derailed train and the Freedom Bridge. The Freedom Bridge was crossed by many South Koreans to return to their mother country from Northh Korea and is the farthest point North civilians can go without military clearance. There are Buddhist prayer ribbons everywhere, many left by families that were left divided from the Korean War, praying for peace and reunification. Many South Koreans who's family escaped from the North during the war return to the Freedom Bridge to pay their respects. Amongst the barbed wire, the vibrantly colored prayer ribbons were a stark, yet beautiful reminder of the heartache many families have endured and continue to endure as a result of the division of these two countries. There was also a recovered steam train that is left to serve as a symbol of the tragic history of the division between North and South Korea. According to the train operator, the train was backed due to the intervention of Chinese Communist Forces on its way to the North Korean capital to deliver war materials. There are more than 1,020 bullet holes.

After going to Imjingak Park we were allowed to enter the Civilian Control Area. We were taken to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and taken underground to walk through the tunnel which was built by the North. It is one of four tunnels that have been found by the South so far but the South believes there are 16 more tunnels, all of which were built by the North during and after the war to attack the city of Seoul by surprise. We also got to go to an observatory that overlooks North Korea. Due to currently raised tensions, we were unable to do as much as the tours usually offer since there have been treats of attacks on tourists from North Korea. We were a bit let down but were thankful for the added caution. We plan to head back to the DMZ next time we are in Seoul to see Panmunjeom City which is the small village that straddles the line separating the North and South. I must say, I did find it surprising and somewhat interesting that everything in the area has Unification and Freedom in it's name. The South Korean government has done everything in its power to fill it's side of the DMZ area with beautiful wildlife and park areas in an attempt to show that life and beauty can flourish in the wake of such disastrous and tragic cruelty.

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After such a somber day we were ready for New Years Eve night. We headed to Itaewon, essentially the "Little America" of Seoul and met up with Ryan, my friend from high school, and some of his co-workers. We brought our New Years in strong with plenty of Jersey fist pumping (only kidding... sort of) and good company! It was great to see Ryan and while I learned how to drink with Ryan and had learned to ignore his peer pressure, Joe had not... leaving Joe to bring in a blurry 2011 and hung over for the next full day of activities!

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The next day, we went to the Korean War Memorial Museum where you can learn all about Korea's tumultuous past, full of military takeovers, fights for independence, wars, colonization, the list goes on and on. There was an entire exhibit celebrating 60 years since the outbreak of the Korean War where they thanked all of the countries that came to their aid with posters and videos for each country. It was touching to see how thankful they were. The sign for the US read, "The year 2010 marks the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. The peace, prosperity, and liberties that we cherish today are built on your selfless sacrifices and contributions. Korea is forever indebted and we will continue to build the trust and friendship between our two nations." I really loved this museum and it was very interactive with tons of tanks, planes, and guns to play with and a full area dedicated to walking you through every step of the Korean War and all of the many affects the war had and continues to have on the peninsula.

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Afterwards, we headed over to Cheonggyecheon Stream. This is a beautiful 3.6 mile stream that is set down 15 feet below street level providing you a serene place to walk and talk with beautiful lights, overhead bridges, small waterfalls, and wonderful scenery. While everywhere we read about this place it said there are tons of people there, I think the 15 degree weather may have kept many people home allowing us some treasured and all so infrequent moments alone together with no one gawking and staring. Oh, the peacefulness!

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On our last day, we headed to Seoul Tower. I don't know why I always feel the need to go to the top of the tower in every city I visit. It's always so anti-climatic but Seoul Tower at least had another draw. Seoul Tower sits atop Namsan Mountain. Long ago it was believed that if lovers made a wish at the shrine on Namsan it would come true. Since then, Namsan has become a place for couples to hang a lock together, promising everlasting love. There must be hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of locks hung with writing all over them. We couldn't go to Seoul without taking part in the tradition.

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Undeterred by our train departure we couldn't miss the opportunity to go to a restored prison built in 1908. Seodaemun Prison signifies the suffering and pain Koreans experienced during the time of Japanese occupation. It is one of 30 prisons built by the Japanese to jail independence activists and punish any pro-democratic activities. Here we were able to learn about the Korean independence movement and the oppression of the Japanese Imperialists. Throughout the weekend, we both were in constant shock at how little we were taught about Korean history. Through all my years of education, I have learned comprehensive history lessons on so many countries, but Korea has seemed to slipped through the cracks. The history behind this country is so incredibly interesting, violent, and unsettled. We were able to go through real torture chambers and look at the many ways the prisoners were tortured, as is with any regime willing to torture... no line was too far. We were also able to go into some of the different kinds of cells. It was all so interesting.

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I promised not to speak politics for a year from the time I set foot on Korean soil... for anyone who knows me they know that's pretty impossible but all-in-all I've done pretty well. That being said, I need to take a moment to reflect. As I learned the history of this country and how hard the people of Korea have fought for every freedom they have and the personal sacrifice that was paid for every liberty, I could not help to feel unendingly grateful for the relatively simple past Americans have endured for our freedoms. Less than 60 years ago, Korea was a country destroyed with no real economy to speak of, never having a solid, untampered independence, yet they have struggled and worked their way to freedom. They are now the tenth largest economy in the world but the blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice can still be seen on many Koreans' faces. They do not forget what they've fought through to achieve their current way of life and the struggles in Korea's past have left a country with such indomitable spirit and potential. As a result of this, I was reminded of the invaluable importance of freedom and peace and the potential they can release in a people left to their own devices. Korea serves as a wonderful example of the product of ambition, self-sacrifice, and hard work.

On Sunday, we were happy to head back home and are looking forward to our next trip to Shanghai for Lunar New Year in February. The goal of the month is securing a job for Joe! Wish us luck!!

love & hugs from Korea!
xoxo

All our Seoul Pictures here

Posted by nlpolyak 05:07 Archived in South Korea Tagged museums vacation seoul exploration Comments (0)

A Twosome Place

Joe's first weekend in Korea

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View Korean Home on nlpolyak's travel map.

News Flash: SK is now definitely my favorite place... Joe has arrived and we're already having a blast! Joe arrived on Thursday night and I was lucky enough to have a much needed break from school on Monday and Tuesday so we've done tons of exploring this weekend, with no room whatsoever for jet lag! I must say, I am impressed that after three short months I've been able to be quite the little tour guide with a function-able level of Korean to get us what we want and where we want. I guess Korean classes are paying off! So, I figured I'd give you a bit of an update on Korea con Jose and thought it would be a perfect time to show you some pictures of our apartment, now that it's complete!

After a nineteen hour journey across the world, I greeted Joe at Gimhae Airport at 9:15 PM on Thursday, November 11th. Ironically, Koreans celebrate Pepero Day every year on November 11th. It is similar to Valentine's Day... you buy your love peperos which are almost inverted chocolate covered pretzels. I got tons from my students, especially my ECC boyfriend, TK. When he found out Joe was coming to Korea he had a serious talk with me about how he wants to fight for my love. After seeing pictures of Joe, he quietly admitted that he may not be able to beat him up but gave me a tight hug, eskimo kisses, and told me he'd always love me! I reassured him he could be my ECC boyfriend and Joe would remain my non-ECC boyfriend. He was open to this setup... although, I don't think Joe is as open-minded!

As the weekend began, we went for a long walk to a nearby neighborhood, Marine City, for a wonderful dinner overlooking Diamond Bridge. Afterwards, we went to the local bar that we always go and I got to introduce Joe to many people and beat him in darts. All in all, it was a successful night! Saturday we woke up early and trekked to Beomeosa Temple. On our hour subway ride, Joe got to experience Korea at its finest when a man, Mr. Shim approached Joe asking if he was American. Mr. Shim spoke very good English; however, he believed Joe's pronunciation of English was terrible and told him he should practice EVERYDAY! Then he asked if I was his fiancée and began called me "fiancée-sir" and said I looked like Marilyn Monroe and had great English and Korean. Needless to say, I liked Mr. Shim more than Joe. Mr. Shim accompanied us from one subway transfer to the next. Upon exiting the subway we turned in the wrong direction. Above the crowd all you could hear was Mr. Shim screaming, "JOE, JOE... WRONG WAY!! ARE YOU A MAN?!?!?!" He claimed he would be at our wedding, would remember our faces, and would visit us in our hometown in America one day because he had lots of money in many countries. I sure hope I see Mr. Shim again someday... he was great! Beomeosa Temple is the head temple of Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It is built on Geumjeongsan Mountain, and is considered one of the leading urban temples in Korea. After exploring the temple area a bit we headed up Geumjeongsan Mountain for a pretty serious hike. This is one of the most popular hiking areas in SK with thousands of people hiking it every weekend... as you can see from many of our pictures. This area is particularly notable because of the nearly 17 kilometers of fortress walls that accompany it. After the Japanese invasions of 1592 and the Chinese invasion of 1636, awareness of the necessity for national defense spiked. There was an especially strong fear of attacks from the sea. As a result, this fortress was build in 1703 under the reign of King Sukjong. The inner and outer walls were mainly built of natural stones, but weak portions were reinforced with artificially created square stone blocks. The walls are about 1.5 meters to 3 meters in height and the area surrounded by the fortress is about 8.2 square kilometers. The fortress was destroyed during the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945) but began to be restored in 1972. Historians believe that fortresses existed on this site long before the 1660's. We had a lot of fun hiking with two friends.. rock climbing, yogging, and laughing at all possible turns! On the way down the mountain we even found a place that we could shoot some bow and arrows for only 1,000 won!! I'd never shot a bow and arrow before... towards the end of my set of 10 I was starting to get a hang of it. Joe was a natural.. not like darts! Must have been his Native American descent shining through. haha

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After hiking for five hours, we got home, got ready and head right out to dinner with the whole crew. We went out for some delicious make your own spring rolls, Joe got his first experience with soju and the night ended with both of us staring at each other at a gim-bop place (Korean version of a 24 hour diner) wondering how we got so drunk. The next day we slept late and did nothing but move Joe into the apartment. Although it is a tiny apartment, miraculously all of our clothes fit and its even a bit homey! Mom, I even have the cheap version of "no touch towels" in the bathroom! Aren't you proud?!

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After fully recuperating from our hangover, I showed Joe a traditional Korean market. We then headed off to ANOTHER TEMPLE, Samgwangsa Temple which is known for its exquisite scenery and unique view of the sunrise. The temple compound has several buildings including the Great Hero Hall and the JikwanJon which is meant for large dhrma assemblies, with the capacity to hold more than ten thousand people. The compound also includes the Great Dharma Bell Pavilion which was built to pray for the national security and welfare of the people; and the nine-storied DaeBoTap which was built with eight sides carved with 53 buddhas, for world peace and the unification of South and North Korea. This time we had a much more unique experience. Since it was a Monday, we were nearly the only people there. We got to wander the temple area by ourselves for quite sometime. As our last stop we entered the Judgement Hall, where one can carry out modern filial piety practice, following the great teachings of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva who endeavored to save all the suffering beings from hell. We walked up five flights of stairs and the hall was open with no one in it. We removed our shoes and respectfully stepped into the hall. Being in this hall with every inch painted in the most vibrant colors I've ever seen, offerings laid at the altar, incense burning, with candles lit everywhere was a truly breathtaking experience. We will most likely never have the opportunity to stand amid such an incredibly beautiful and humblingly religious site all alone again in our lives. It was quite powerful, especially knowing the Hall is dedicated to someone who sought to save anyone suffering from hell. What an enormously large and selfless act. Pictures can't really put into words how incredible the hall was but hope you enjoy.

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Other than all these adventures, we did a lot of walking around the neighborhood to get Joe familiar with everything and spent some time being goofy around the beach, as usual! Great way to start the next year ^o^

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miss & love you all!!

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All the pictures: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2084968&id=32103399&l=1f4179f0fa

Posted by nlpolyak 04:21 Archived in South Korea Tagged hiking welcome exploration Comments (3)

October Happenings

eating live Octopus, seeing martial arts musicals, incredible fireworks... it's been an eventful month!

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View Korean Home on nlpolyak's travel map.

Happy fall, officially! My favorite season has proved to be just as beautiful and enjoyable in Busan. I was told there isn't much of a transition between seasons here and that was delightfully true. It seems right after Chuseok, I woke up to perfect fall weather with no humidity, sun, and a cool breeze! It's been just perfect! The wonderful weather has allowed for perfect, eventful weekends.

First stop, I went to see a Comic Martial Arts Performance called "JUMP" with three coworkers. The combination between martial arts, gymnastics, and slapstick comedy made for almost two hours of nonstop laughter, mixed with jaw-dropping amazement at incredible acrobatics, fight scenes, and nonstop, unexpected, yet hilarious, antics. One of my Korean coworkers invited me to go to the show and I excitedly accepted but I went not knowing what to expect. I was concerned with whether I would be able to follow the show if it was all in Korean... that turned out to be one of the most interesting parts. During the entire performance, not more than 20 words were spoken... some in English, some in Korean, but they managed to tell an entire four part story with practically no words. A few minutes prior to the start of the show, all of the sudden an old Korean man with crooked, unreliable legs and a bent back appeared with a cane and began walking through the small theater. He chose our isle to walk down and everyone had to stand up so he could VERY SLOWLY walk through. Nonverbally, he asked people to help him... give him massages, open candies, etc. When he finally made it to the stage, with the help of a man who gave him a piggy back ride all the way down front, the show started. The plot was based on a Korean family whose very conservative grandfather tries to keep a family, consisting of a talented father, crazy mother, love-longing daughter, and drunken uncle in line while a boy visits to court the daughter. I think one of the funniest aspects of the show was how much each person could undoubtedly relate to the quirky family and the audience was often called on to take part in the show. Afterwards, we got to meet the entire cast and get autographs. JUMP travels quite a bit... I know they had a location in NYC. I would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to see it! The ladies and I then headed to an oceanfront neighborhood nearby called, Marine City. The area is strikingly similar to the Upper East Side plus waterfront dining... what could be better than that! We headed to a beautiful little Italian Restaurant and it was nice to "escape" Korea a bit.

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Next stop, the largest fish market in Northeast Asia to experience the Jagalchi Fish Festival... something I wish Pa was with me to experience! From the time the subway pulled into the stop, the smell of fish was a bit overpowering but you quickly got used to it. The pictures will explain more than I can but it was quite a fun experience to walk through the market and look in amazement at the over-sized and abundant choice of seafood... all for so cheap! For someone who has grown up crabbing, clamming, and fishing it was just mind-blowing to see the abundance! Grandma, you could have sat for 24 hours straight picking at crabs and it wouldn't have made a dent in your pocket or their supply... and you can bring your own Gatorade bottle!... that's encouraged everywhere in Korea! haha After walking around a bit, our growling stomachs led us to go pick out our meal. A very popular dish in Korea is live octopus... well, to be fair, it's not REALLY live but STILL MOVING! While I was not overly enthused to eat the notorious octopus that must be chased down, I was told its somewhat of a rite of passage to Korean life... so, how do I say no to that! We chose our octopus and watched the lady cut it up right in front of us (video below). What you don't see in the video is immediately after I turned the camera off, my curious fingers wandered to the octopus that suctioned to me leading me to scream and whip the octo-piece into a nearby tank. At least I made a Korean woman's day because she got a good laugh out of this! Next we got to pick out what fish we wanted to eat... watched it killed then headed upstairs. They delivered our still moving octopus and fresh fish to our table that had a beautiful waterfront view. You can't get fresher seafood than that... swimming to stomach in less than 30 minutes! All for the reasonable price of 10,000 won each. After dinner we headed over to a huge, traditional Korean market called Nampo-dong. I didn't get to shop, which my bank account thanked, but I plan to go back ASAP! It's been too long since I've gotten my shopping therapy in! From there we went to Busan Tower. What city is complete without a towering building that they charge silly tourists to go to the top of to see the city, far and wide! Only difference is that here they charge you $4... in NYC they charge you $30! haha In a city like Busan where nothing is complete if its not techni-color it made for a beautiful look-out!

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Choosing Dinner

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our octopus being prepared!

Dinner

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Oh, I forgot to mention... After dinner, on our way across the street to Nampo-dong, we walked through a street show being conducted but a Korean clown. After telling us we were beautiful I stopped to take a picture of him. He insisted that beautiful girls don't take pictures of him... they take pictures WITH HIM so in the middle of the show with nearly 100 Koreans looking on we stopped to take pictures with the man! haha

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Busan Tower

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Great example of the English translations gone awry on many signs... who doesn't like a little love making "just for you" with your coffee?!?!

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Yesterday, we had Sports Day for school. It's like field day on a Saturday with the whole family coming and getting involved. It was tons of fun but I'll tell you more about school things in another blog. After Sports Day a few of us headed over to Gwang-alli Beach for the Busan International Fireworks Festival. We knew we had to get there early so we arrived at the beach at about 4:30 pm for an 8 pm showing of the fireworks. I was told it was unreal how many people would be there and how the beach became a sea of people with no beach showing. That's the understatement of the century! There must have been a few hundred thousand people in attendance. You literally could see no sand on the beach... blankets were overlapping, and the streets were immovably full. One of the girls I was with had to go to the bathroom. She literally could not make it to the street because there were too many bodies to even find any way through. In a country that already has no boundaries for personal space, it was unreal to see how packed like sardines we all were. By 7:45 pm I was doubting the three plus hours sitting on the beach waiting, after 7 hours of sports fun with children without having my morning coffee, could possibly be worth it. By 8:05 I stood completely corrected. Pa, Uncle Bob, any fireworks lover... this is something you must see before you die! The $1,300 round trip airfare is well worth the show! The crowds are well worth the show! The wait is well worth the show! ... And the good part is that although you are stuck in a crowd sitting for hours, Koreans are just nice and you don't have the morons who get drunk and do inappropriate things and throw beer bottles or ruin the good time for everyone. Fireworks will never be the same after this showing! It was 55 minutes of nonstop amazement!! Below are some pictures and a video of the last 3 minutes of the show but nothing, and I mean nothing, can possibly explain how incredible the fireworks were! I'd put the finale in the top 5 most beautiful things I've ever witnessed. I've already told Joe that next year while backpacking, its well worth the money to fly back to Korea to see the fireworks in October! The video is long but well worth the watch!

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In other news, I've started Korean classes and I'm SLOWLY learning how to read and say important phrases. I do like being back in the student role and challenging myself a bit. It's fun! AND the most exciting news yet... Joe finally booked his ticket! He'll officially be in Korea on Thursday, November 11th! I can't wait to have my best friend here to experience all of this with!! woo hoo!! Who's coming next?!

miss & love you all!
xoxo

for more pictures: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2083902&id=32103399&l=1304d06997

Posted by nlpolyak 01:46 Archived in South Korea Tagged markets fun fireworks exploration Comments (3)

Happy Chuseok

Celebrating Thanksgiving, a la Korea

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Thanksgiving is one of the most celebrated traditions in the United States. While officially it’s meant to mark the end of the harvest season, most people today think of it as an occasion to reflect, give thanks, spend time with their loved ones, and – of course – eat. The day just wouldn’t be complete without the traditional Thanksgiving feast, especially in the Polyak household!! What Thanksgiving could possibly be completely without Grandma’s stuffing and the oh, so traditional beer pong tournament.

The occasion of showing appreciation and giving thanks is also observed in Korea when Chuseok is celebrated. Unlike in the US where ours is always on a Thursday, I think just to benefit stores on Black Friday, Chuseok is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, so it usually falls in September or October. Traditionally, this is a time when Koreans visit their ancestral hometowns, a visit that sometimes includes a trip to their ancestors’ tombs to tend to the plot and offer recently harvested foods as a sign of respect. While there is no turkey, sweet potatoes, or stuffing, food certainly plays a crucial role in one of Korea’s most important holidays.
Many foods are integral to chuseok and one of the most well known is songpyeon, or stuffed rice cakes steamed on a layer of oyeopsong pine needles. The delicacy’s origin dates back many centuries- some say as early as the Three Kingdoms that ruled Korea from 57 BC to 668. Songpyeon are also made on a baby’s first birthday with the hope that the child’s head would be full of intelligence, just as songpyeon is full of stuffing. We had a Chuseok celebration at school on the Friday before break and I had the opportunity to make songpyeon with the students. Perhaps, once I’ve returned to the US, I’ll make songpyeon to go with our Thanksgiving turkey and reminisce of my first Chuseok celebration! Experiencing Thanksgiving in another culture undoubtedly proved one cross-cultural constant that remained the same… the importance of family! Even though I haven't even reached the holiday season in America, I yearned for those special moments of laughter and reminiscence that I have with my family. Whether it be around the table (dinner or beer pong table, LOL) or sitting in front of the TV, taking a walk, or sitting on the couch… I felt blessed and thankful during this year’s Chuseok for my amazing and supportive family, my friends around the world, and the opportunity to take part in this amazing experience with incredible people.

Some pictures from our ECC Chuseok Celebration:

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Making Songpyeon:

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That being said… I was also thankful that I was able to take an INCREDIBLE Chuseok vacation to Jeju Island, also known as the “Island of the Gods”. Jeju is located southwest of the Korean peninsula (map below) and was created entirely from volcanic eruptions approximately 2 million years ago. It is a popular vacation spot for Koreans and many Japanese and is one of the top honeymoon destinations for Korean newlyweds… additionally, it is considered the Hawaii of SK.

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Day 1: Flight & Samyang Beach

Lift-off was on Saturday morning. After a quick 35 minute flight to Jeju, Jon, Anuska, and I hopped into a bus and headed out to find somewhere to stay. There are two main cities in Jeju, Jeju-si and Seongwipo-si. Jon and Anuska had both been to Jeju before and stayed at a motel right across from the Jeju-si bus terminal, the Olympia. We decided to stay at the same place… it was the perfect location so we could get anywhere on the island via bus. For $10 per night, the hotel suited our needs perfectly. We dropped our stuff in our room and headed for Samyang Blacksand Beach for some relaxation. There were very few people there and it was just what we needed to get into the vacation mentality. After naps on the beach we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. We explored and found a perfect little area that had tons of restaurants. We decided on Boobi Boobi, primarily because of the name. They had great food, comfortable couches you got to sit in while you ate, and you even got to put on masks on the way out!

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Day 2: Tacky Theme Park Day

Jeju is an island full of Tacky Theme Parks. For a relatively small island, there are tons of them…. Let’s see: Elephant Land, Love Land, Mini Mini Land, Paper Doll Museum, Teddybear Museum, Psyche World, Dinosaur Theme Park, Alligator Town, Dream Land, Jeju Fitness Town (idk why I missed that one), a Maze Park… I could go on forever but I think you get the point. We decided on Elephant Land, Mini Mini Land, and Love Land.

I was expecting more from Elephant Land. Ended up being 3 elephants, a llama, 2 ponies, a few roosters, and a wallaby. We spent $10 to go on an elephant ride which consisted of a 5 minute loop with nothing to look at and we couldn’t even take pictures of the nothingness but oh well! We got our picture taken on the elephant… I think the Shrine Circus could teach Elephant Land a thing or two about elephant rides! Haha

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Everything looked up from there! Next we took a bus to Mini Mini Land. Not much to say about it other than IT WAS SOOO MUCH FUN! I travelled everywhere from Korea to China, Australia to Paris, NYC to India, Washington to Prehistoric dinosaur times… not to mention the ability to ride in Cinderella’s Carriage!! What more could you ask for in a theme park?!?! The pictures are self explanatory. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun!

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Next stop: Love Land. I am going to put a precautionary warning that some of the pictures below may be considered offensive to some. But, in that case you should scroll down quickly. In a country that is traditionally quite conservative, especially as it relates to sexual interaction (public displays of affection are looked down upon, living with a boyfriend before marriage is highly taboo, etc) it is very interesting to find an entire theme park dedicated to sex! I guess that is the product of the present-day, more liberal generation clashing with the traditional conservatism. In 2002, twenty graduates from Hongik University in Seoul started to create what would later form Korea’s only sexual theme park. The park opened two years later in 2004 and it is by no means your typical walk through the park! As you walk through the grounds, EVERYTHING is phallic-ly or sexually inspired. Each turn provides you with another erotic sculpture which, as Love Land’s website claims, is meant to instigate your sexual mind! There is also a gallery and exhibition hall completely dedicated to sex toys. Some may be purchased while others are just for show. Anuska witnessed two ajummas (older Korean women) discussing which sex toys one had and how happy she was with it. Guess the older generation isn’t TOO conservative! Love Land makes sex and pleasure a comfortable topic for even the most conservative! It was an experience to be had!! But we sure did have a lot of fun there!

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Day 3: Hiking the Tallest Mountain in SK, Halla-san & adventures in Songwipo

Early Monday morning we took the 40 minute bus ride to the bottom of Seongpanak Trail which is 9.6 km each way. Halla-san rests in the center of the volcanic island that is Jeju. It is a dormant volcano that rises to 1,950 meters. We started early, leaving ourselves plenty of time to reach the checkpoint. Because of the height of the mountain you needed to be at the checkpoint at 7 km by 12:30 pm and needed to start your descent by 2 pm. We made it to the top in an ass kicking 2 hours and 45 minutes. At the top there is a crater lake, called Baengnokdam, literally meaning “white deer lake”. There is a legend that claims the lake was named for men who descended from heaven to play with white deer. After resting at the top for a little while, enjoying the view as we sat amongst the clouds, we began the hefty trek back down. It took a full 2.5 hours to get down the mountain since it was such a steep climb.

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And the descent down...

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View from the bottom... I was all the way up in those clouds!!

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After getting to the bottom, we changed quickly then hopped on a bus to Songwipo-si to check out Jeongbang Waterfall, which is the only waterfall in Asia to empty directly into the ocean. The water was cool and we sat with our feet deflating in the water. After 20 km of hiking, nothing could have been more refreshing! We headed for some delicious dinner then hopped the bus back up to Jeju-si to PASS OUT!! I’d like to go back and spend some more time in Songwipo… it had a much more tropical, laid back island feel which I appreciated greatly! I’d like to explore a bit more down there!

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Day 4: Udo Island

Off the northeast coast of Jeju, lies a small island – Udo. On Tuesday morning, we took a bus to Seongsan (we were bus experts at this point) to get on a quick 15 minute ferry to Udo. The ferry ride was beautiful and upon reaching our destination we rented some ATVs. We only had three and a half hours to explore before having to make our way back to catch the last ferry off the island at 5:30 pm. There is a road that goes along the entire coast of the island so we travelled on this, rested on a beach for a while, travelled some more, saw lighthouses. I can’t say much about this island other than it is absolutely breathtaking. It was such a cool experience. It didn’t look Asian at all… it looked more like Ireland with vast expanses of farm land overlooking the ocean. Each farming plot was separated by walls built of volcanic rock and I loved sitting on the beach staring out at rolling mountains and the beautiful Magnificent Sunrise, Seongsan Ilchulbong. It was all just so incredible! This is another place I’d like to go back to. We were all reluctant to return our ATVs and head back to the mainland but this is another place I definitely plan to return to! After another relaxing ferry ride back we asked about where to catch a bus to Jeju-si. A Korean couple overheard us and offered to drive us to the bus stop, which was a little bit of a walk away. After getting in the car with them, they then said they live right near Jeju-si Bus Terminal so offered to drive us the entire way home. They saved us an almost 2 hour bus ride home and I just couldn’t get over how unbelievably kind they were. As a New Yorker and avid viewer of Law & Order SVU, I couldn’t help but be skeptical and assume they wanted to kill us but NO. They were just helping us out of the kindness of their hearts, expecting nothing in return. They even wanted to stop to buy us this special bread from a famous bakery on the way home but it was closed because of Chuseok. It was really eye-opening to see just how friendly and open-hearted people really can be here… I feel like this is largely a lost virtue. It was the perfect way to wrap up a perfect day!!!

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We showered and headed back to Boobi Boobi again for dinner then went past a place that you could wear all kinds of crazy hats and outfits and go into photo booths. We had tons of fun taking these goofy pictures then went for a few drinks to wrap up an amazing vacation!!

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To see all the Jeju pictures: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2078724&id=32103399&l=bcea4e0ab5

Posted by nlpolyak 00:41 Archived in South Korea Tagged vacation Comments (3)

Attraversiamo

... crossing over from a tourist to a resident

70 °F

I guess you can say I’ve REALLY slacked at updating this blog! I’ve gotten a never-ending string of emails from so many wonderful people checking up on me… making sure I’m still surviving and enjoying my first month in Korea. I promise to do better! It has been difficult since I still have no internet and have been trying to get into a routine here. So, once again, I’m left in the same situation with all too much to update you on!

I’ll start by saying that things are wonderful! I’m very quickly finding my niche here and that is thanks, in a large part, to the wonderful group of people that I work with. I count my blessings daily that I have a group of coworkers that have an endless amount of patience for my endless questions and have been beyond gracious enough to show me the ropes and give me a bit of a crash course in surviving here! Everything from teaching tips to where to get the best homemade tofu, where I should get a haircut to where I should grab a beer, where I can find an all too rare delicious sandwich to how to order my dinner… I wouldn’t have made it this far without them! Beyond that, they have been such an accepting and inclusive group… always inviting me to do things! Thanks to them I’ve started to become a teacher, had my first Korean hangover, hiked the mountain that’s right outside our door, gone to my first Korean baseball game, booked my first Korean vacation, started to learn the neighborhood and appreciate the vast cuisine options that’s abound thanks to the many wonderful dinners I’ve shared with them! I can’t believe I’ve been here for about a month already but at the same time many of the people I have met here, I already consider friends!

On that note, I can’t wait to tell you about my students! I was a bit nervous to take on this new challenge of teaching but while I’m still in my honeymoon days I can say I really like it! … Even more than I thought I would! I love my students!! I teach two different classes of children in the morning… one set of five year olds and one set of six and seven year olds. They are great! They all have such amazing personalities and I am amazed by how much English they know! I’d venture to say that many of them have a better grasp on the English language than your typical 5-7 year olds in America. It is an extremely exhausting job but I genuinely look forward to seeing my students everyday! They especially love to sing and dance! I made CDs for class and some of the most popular songs are the Temptations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup”, Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, The Outfield’s “Your Love”, N’SYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye”, and of course Will Smith’s “Getting’ Jiggy with It”. There was a great moment when one of girls I love turned to me at lunch and just said “Teacher, I love this song… ‘you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em” Priceless! In the afternoons, I teach several classes each with varying levels of elementary school children from ages seven through thirteen. Some of them have never spoken a word of English in their lives while others are borderline fluent. I am struggling more with the older kids, most of which have sat in school all day and the last thing they want to do is study English. I can’t blame them but this means they come with more baggage to add to their pre-teen tudes! haha That being said they are all unique and I enjoy teaching them all… most of the time.

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the boys & the girls from my youngest morning class

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they love to dance!!

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the six & seven year old class! they have so much personality!!

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Oh, Tommy!! His front teeth are completely rotted out and brown from eating too much candy. He will openly admit that they will never grow back! He's a REAL character!

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That's TK! He's one of my favs!!

This past weekend, after a night on the town, experiencing my first Korean hangover with only a few hours of sleep, my coworker that has been my official Korean tour guide thus far, Jon, and I went to hike Jangsan Mountain. It is less than a ten minute walk from our apartment and while getting to the top was a bit rough, the view at the top was well worth it!! It must have been about 89 degrees with 99% humidity… I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my entire life!! It was quite gross… I believe my direct quote from the day was “I’m sweating like a dirty monkey!” haha well even in repeating that I’m grossing myself out and it’s probably way too much information for all of you but I want you to appreciate just how grossly hot and humid it was! For someone who has lived their entire life cold and shivering and NEVER sweating… any physical activity I do here I end up sweating! I hate it!! I found a great gym but even there… there is no AC and my god… I can’t wait for winter! (I know I will be kicking myself in the @$$ for saying that when winter gets here!) Anyway, back to the hike… It was a good two hour trek up with some amazing views but nothing can compare to the view from the top. I didn’t take many pictures but I did try out the panoramic feature from the top. It was a bit cloudy but that didn’t take away from the vast and beautiful scenery. Jon said that on a clear day you can see some Japanese islands from the top not to mention most of the surrounding Busan coastline. Hiking is one of Korea’s favorite pastimes… I can’t wait to do more! I’ll have the opportunity next week on my first Korean vacation!

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That's always comforting!!

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"Why did we decide to do this again?!?"

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... not even to the top yet!

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and the top!

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On Saturday, I leave for Jeju Island with Jon and one other coworker, Anuska. I can’t wait! We have off for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) so I got a last minute plane ticket to join them to the nearby island that is considered to be the “Hawaii of Korea”. It is an hour flight from Busan so we are going on Saturday morning and coming back on Wednesday. We plan on hiking the tallest peak in South Korea, Hallasan Mountain. It is a dormant volcano that peaks at 1,950 meters which is about 6,400 feet. We’ll also beach it a bit and may even scuba dive. I am really excited :o)

Tonight, I went to my first Korean baseball game with all of my coworkers! … So much fun!! Much better than any Yankee game I’ve ever been to. (Mom, don’t hate me too much for that!) Koreans just get so into everything they do and are so enthusiastic. The chants were tons of fun and everyone made pom-poms out of ripped up newspaper. Everyone is standing, yelling, dancing, and waving their pom-pom around! Sounds like the recipe for fun to me! Haha The best part was that during the eighth inning, they pass out orange plastic shopping bags. Everyone puts air in them, ties them up, puts them on their head, and hooks the handles onto their ears to keep them securely in place! It’s hysterical and literally the entire stadium participates! That definitely gives the YMCA during the seventh inning stretch a run for its money! … The best part, we sat on the first base line about five rows from the field for just 13,000 won (about $11)!

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AND the bag hats come out! ....

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They even have special entertainment between plays, "The Sexy Dancers"

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Other than all that, life is starting to normalize a bit. I’ve gotten into a routine and am starting to feel comfortable and homey here... much less like a wandering tourist! With almost a month down, I’m truly looking forward to what the next eleven have in store! I’ll be sure to take tons of pictures during Chuseok in Jeju!! Until next time… whenever that may be… Annyonghi kyesayo!

love and miss you all!

Posted by nlpolyak 10:19 Archived in South Korea Tagged transition Comments (3)

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