Ten days

Though I seem to be constantly in a state of self-reflection, I have yet to put into words what this past year has been, what I’ve experienced, how it has changed me, what it’s meant to me, the people I’ve met and the sights that I’ve seen, and perhaps I won’t really be able to fully  articulate such reflections until some unknown point in the future. The strange, exciting, sort of sad (all right, quite sad) and a bit frightening thing is that I’m leaving Korea in ten days and I have no idea what I’m doing.

These last few months I’ve spent flip-flopping between staying and going, and there’s this never-ending dialogue occuring between my inner beings arguing over the legitimate reasons to make an attempt at creating a life and career for myself in America and the adventurer begging me not to go anywhere too familiar, to continue the journey to foreign territories with languages indecipherable and cultures unknown. I have a very loose plan for my not-so-distant future and I’m thrilled by the numerous prospects and oddly as ease with the uncertainty of what’s to come; it’s entirely possible that in a few months I’ll be en-route to Seoul for round two, but the possibilities also include various other Asian cities, locations in America and maybe even a return to eastern Europe. As I’ve mentioned, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m confident, a bit strangely so, that everything will work itself out as it should.

Figuring out the future is not, however, the point of this post. Tonight likely isn’t the night to get down deep into it, but I’m seriously so astonished to realize that I’ve spent a whole year living in Korea and when I think back to my first days here and the person I was then, it feels so bizarre because I recognize how much I’ve grown. When I moved to Seoul I was in dire need and want for an unfamiliar land and despite my rapture for the adventure I was embarking on, I came to this country torn apart with a broken heart desperate to mend. Whatever love I had to give, I gave it to this city and now I find myself preparing to pack my bags to leave my love behind. Seoul is a magical place that I’ve become so attached to and even with ten days to go, I know it’s going to tear a bit of me apart to fly away. My life here is a wonderful and exciting one that I very well may kick myself for leaving behind, but I suppose the thing that’s helping me to maintain my composure is that little grain of an imagined future that has me coming back here–an imagination that very well might become a reality.

I don’t have it in me this evening to review my year and share the tales that have yet to find themselves surviving infinitely in the interwebs, but I couldn’t keep quiet the excitement and anxiety wriggling all about me. In ten days I’ll be back in America and for all I know I may fall back in love with my motherland, but regardless of where I decide to call home for the next however long, I must note that I’ll be leaving a piece of myself behind in Seoul-land that someday I must retrieve. Ten days from now is not goodbye for me and this place, it’s simply a see you later.


48 Hours in Busan

Last, last weekend was Korea’s Memorial Day weekend and to celebrate my coworkers Will and David, our friend Amila and myself decided to venture south to the beaches of Busan to soak up the sunshine, dine on fresh seafood and splish-splash in the salty waters of the East Sea.


The journey began late on Saturday night as we took a 3-hour train ride from Seoul to Busan and since there were no seats left on the train we made ourselves comfortable in one of the standing cars. The trip itself went by fairly fast, no doubt with help from the service cart selling beer at the same cheap price as convenience stores (~2,000 won or $1.50). When we finally arrived in Busan, our first mission was to fill up our bellies and after a little bit of roaming around and swiftly moving out of the sketchy Russian quarter, we settled on a small Korean restaurant for some pretty standard grub; I had a bowl of some scrumptious bibimbap that included some raw fish. After having drinks in a different section of the city that kind of reminded us of Hongdae, we decided to make the trek to a nearby jjimjilbong (Korean spa/baths) to wash and sauna off the day and catch some zzz’s.This jjimjilbong was quite nice with multiple hot baths, a large pool and two saunas, and the common room for sleeping was rather large though a little on the discomforting side due to the extra hot temperature.


Waking up around 11 AM feeling fairly well-rested, we hit the sauna, showered and grabbed a quick bite to eat before catching the subway to Gwangalli Beach.

Group shot at Gwangalli Beach (left to right: me, Will, Amila and David)

This beach was absolutely gorgeous and not too overcrowded, which was rather nice. We basically spent the entire day laying on the beach sipping makguelli, taking dips in the ocean to cool-off and grabbing food, coffee and water just across the street whenever the need arose.

Salty East Sea waters

Amila gazing out at the sea and Gwangan Bridge

My sandy toes

On the boardwalk

After beach lounging for several hours, we had all worked up a mighty hunger, but David and I were specifically craving some spicy cold noodles which isn’t exactly everybody’s cup of tea, so we left Will and Amila on the beach to hold our spots and got ourselves some giant bowls of noodles!


All too quickly our day at the beach was turning into night and for the evening hours we made our way to Haeundae Beach, which though I haven’t ever been to Cancun, I feel confident in making the comparison deeming Haeundae essentially to be Korea’s Cancun. Though Haeundae isn’t the kind of beach I prefer, it made for an eventful and amusing night out, and the surrounding area/section of the city was actually a lot of fun for grabbing dinner, drinks and whatever other entertainment seemed necessary, like noraebonging!!

Haeundae Beach by night

For a few hours we sat on the beach near the water playing drinking games and chatting, listening to terrible bands performing on the giant stage that we couldn’t manage to get far away enough from to allow the sea to completely drown out the sound. One game we played was a number/counting game that sounded too easy at first, but surely enough after a few rounds we were all becoming sufficiently goofy off of our beach beverages of choice, especially Amila who had trouble remembering some of her times tables! With the beach growing chilly and our stomachs rumbling, we went inland to find a spot for dinner that we could all agree on, which took far longer than it should, but eventually we settled for a giant pot of seafood stew and it was thoroughly satisfying to say the least.

Remnants of a seafood devouring session

Will and I had been really aching for some singing time so our next destination was a noraebong (singing room). The first place we went to basically refused us, a sometimes occurrence for foreigners just about anywhere, but the woman was very kind and directed us to a different noraebong nearby. Though we were all in attendance, Will and I were total mic hogs, but Amila and David didn’t seem to mind too much! I wish I could remember the entire tracklist for the night, but of what I can recall I know Will and I did a spectacular job with Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson,” and Queen, Prince, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones and Rick Astley (yes, we rick-rolled ourselves) all happened at some point.

Will, Amila and David at the noraebong…I think the boys were doing “Kung-Fu Fighting”

This might have to be one of my profile pictures for life

The rest of the evening went as most Korean nights do, unpredictably predictable. We walked around exploring the city at night, laughing at the strange sights and generally causing mischief whenever we foreigners could. David and I “played” a little volleyball on the beach and Will and I dared drunk David to run to the top of a sand mountain, which he did. All was magically well until we made it to incredibly beautiful looking, both on the interior and exterior, jjimjilbong we planned to sleep in only to discover that it was full. I didn’t think this was possible and certainly doubted the front-desk women until she allowed me to take a peek at the sleeping area to see if we wanted to stay there still and it literally was the most packed sleeping quarters I’d ever seen in my life. Fortunately jjimjilbongs are a plenty and after a short cab ride we found a place to rest our weary limbs.


For me, Monday began all too abruptly as an adjumma (someday I will go into all that this single word encompasses and signifies, which is a surprising amount, but for now just know that this is the word used to describe a particular and common type of Korean woman, but literally translates to married woman) woke me by shaking and hitting me with a square brick pillow and in a whispered shout said something in Korean that my mind translated to “get up and move now!” This all happened at 9:30 AM, which maybe in my U.S. days would have been a normal waking hour for me, but in Korea I’m lucky if I’m out of bed before 11: 00 AM. Exhausted and off-kilter from waking in the middle of my sleep cycle, I presume, I headed for the sauna in hopes of sweating myself to a state somewhere closer to awake than I was; it half-worked, but I think the cold pool after is what really did the trick. Or maybe just being surrounded by a ton of naked Korean women starring at me is what did it.

Amila and I were ready to go before the boys had even gotten themselves off the floor (somehow they avoided being rudely awakened by some Korean woman), but we managed to all meet-up for some breakfast before returning to Gwangalli Beach to spend yet another day on its glorious sand. Unlike our lazy Sunday, much of Monday was spent in the ocean playing with the volleyball David brought along. It was super fun running around and hitting the volleyball in the salty water and just being in the ocean like that reminded me of how I used to spend my weekends on the Oregon Coast surfing when I was younger. I’m sure I’d be awful at it now as I was never even that good, but I’m actually looking forward to busting out my surfboard when I get back to America and seeing what I can do.

The day was winding down fast and all too soon it was approaching the hour for Amila to catch a train back to Seoul. For our final supper together we grabbed some Mexican food and mojitos at a restaurant with a patio right next to the beach and it was an excellent meal to bid farewell to one of our posse members.

Last supper all together in Busan

From that point, the weekend was already perfect and extremely memorable, definitely among my favorite weekends spent in Korea. I couldn’t really imagine at the time what would’ve made the trip significantly better, but sure enough we came up with something. While eating dinner, the next mission was determined to be to get onto the roof of a building, specifically with our eyes on the linked twin towers that were so intriguing and architecturally attractive in the skyline.

Before embarking on our rooftop adventure though, we checked out a beach carnival that was next to the buildings. It was a quaint operation when it comes to carnivals, but it certainly created some great photo opportunities. I especially loved the bright colors, neon lights and terribly reproduced popular images.

The Crazy Flip


Loving this DISCO light

The sun was destined to set soon and thus we made our attempt to get to the roof of a building near the sea. The first tower we went up to the fifteenth floor and had no luck–every door was locked despite the deserted appearance of the building. With our fingers crossed, we took the elevator to the top floor of the second tower and as the boys turned to head for the stairwell I felt compelled to at least try the doors to the empty office next to the elevator and to my complete shock the doors were unlocked, as were the doors to the balcony overlooking Gwangalli Beach. We were all so ecstatic and simply couldn’t believe that we had discovered a high up in the sky to call ours for a little while. There are few things in life that I call perfect, but that occurrence and our luck in that moment and watching the sunset over the sea and edge of the hills in the distance of the cityscape really was perfect. Spending whatever time we did up there really was the ideal way to end our trip to Busan.

The view from our claimed balcony at Gwangalli Beach

Busan in the evening hours from up above

Well, that concludes the tale of my 48 hours in Busan. As I’ve already said, the trip was amazing and it was so wonderful to see another part of Korea. It’s finally setting in that I’m leaving soon and may or may not be back. It’s going to be difficult to bid this country farewell, it really is.

26 days and counting….

For more photos and higher quality images from my time in Busan as well as my travels throughout Asia, please visit my Flickr.

A month of stories…Day #5

Written by Chelsea Marie Hicks

“I’ll have uhh…hana of that,” Kevin pointed at the menu filled with symbols of undecipherable text.
“I thought you were vegetarian,” Shin Ji Won asked, pronouncing veggie “bay-gee.”
“I am,” he responded, sensing through the implication of her question that he most likely just ordered the entire head of a pig, the feet of a chicken and/or the stomach lining of a cow stuffed with several other meats and referred to lovingly as a delicacy. She giggled at his mistake and told him not worry.

“I ordered kimchi jigae, so we trade.”
Though he had no idea what jee-gay was, he was well-acquainted with kimchi. It was impossible to set foot in Korea and not be made keenly aware of kimchi’s presence, its unmistakable scent being breathed into the air by citizens at all hours of the day and night, weaving its tangy smell permanently into every cloth fiber draped from the shoulders of businessmen in polished suits and age-defying supermodel women in short, figure hugging dresses that walk along every single sidewalk and live around every corner.

Kevin, like most men that discover utopia crossing the road at every intersection in Seoul, found it impossible not to be taken aback by the women that surrounded him. Shin Ji Won was, he thought, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen until he realized that he had been seeing her everywhere he went. There was a Shin Ji Won at the Family Mart and there she was waiting to catch the subway at Sadang station and then he saw her again in the park with an iced coffee or maybe it was a black tea in her hand. He saw another woman just like her, but with slightly longer legs and daring to done slightly taller heels, sharing with a friend food eaten with sticks at a cart operating out in the heat of the summer night. Women like Shin Ji Won were understandably rare to him in the middle America town he spent his whole life growing up in, but in Korea she was almost every woman and this understandably shocked him.

“Do you like? Not too spicy?” She eagerly asked in the middle of devouring the tuna fried rice he had apparently ordered for her.
“It’s really good. A little spicy, but not too much,” he replied much to her chagrin.
“Really!? Wow!” She appeared both impressed and surprised to have found a waygookin not overwhelmed by the standard flavor of Korean cuisine–hot.
“So, you like kimchi? That’s very good. Kimchi very good for health and important to Korean diet.”

Kevin noticed and found adorable the way she left out certain articles when talking. He knew this was a natural occurrence for some when speaking a foreign tongue, it certainly happened to him whenever he used the Spanish he learned in high school, but he had yet to understand that this was also a complicated and logical language mishap for Koreans learning English as their language lacked most of the articles he was so accustomed to.

“Mmmm, yes. Kimchi very good and very delicious.”

He also recognized his own English language skills deteriorating in conversations where he took on this broken English way of conversing with other Koreans, despite his employment being dependent upon a proficiency in such skills. It was also rather rude and nonsensical to raise the volume of his voice and speak in minimalistic, butchered phrases whenever forced to ask Koreans questions in English, but this was something that he always acknowledged only once everything had been said. “BAR SOAP, HAVE YOU?!” he had shouted at an older female employee at E-Mart before the woman pointed to the bottom shelf and told him “it’s right there sir,” successfully making him feel like an idiot and an asshole for the rest of that afternoon.

“You want more?” She was already shouting joe-gee-yo to grab the attention of the fierce women working the kitchen and it sounded as though she had ordered them an entire feast, again. This seemed to be the way they do it here, he thought.

In time he would understand some of what she had shouted to the women laboring over the delights of his stomach and would be able to read the menus to discern what fit into his difficult-to-maintain vegetarian diet. In time he would be able to order dinner for both of them and to appropriately show his appreciation for the women playing with spices and fire. For now though, he reveled in this moment in which he sat with the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen in a place where the nights grew bright with neon and where, instead of calling him Kevin, the people called him waygookin.

Halfway reflections: six months in Korea

View from my apartment window shot in August

This week marks my six months spent living and working in Korea. I’ve certainly repeated it enough, but I’m quite serious when I say that my time here has sped by rapidly and though it does feel like I stepped onto a plane Asia-bound eons ago, the calendar and its measure of time passing somehow seems wildly inaccurate. In these six months I’ve learned so much about this country, its people, culture, customs and language, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself. There is a strange level of loneliness that comes with being a foreigner in a city constantly buzzing with busy bodies and being surrounded by voices you cannot understand. Though this aspect sounds perhaps unappealing, I’ve come to savor the time I’ve had alone here as it’s provided me with ample opportunity for self-reflection and self-examination, which at this stage in my life are things I dearly needed. I’ll likely never be satisfied with the amount of writing I complete, but when I set out for this adventure part of my intention was to write my heart out and though my heart has many more things to say and scream, I feel as though I am succeeding in turning myself more and more, bit by bit, into paper.

Anyhow, the point of this post is to report some of my findings and discoveries from my first six months living this foreign life, so here are a few thoughts that immediately come to mind…

1. Chopsticks beat the fork

Just last weekend I had a food experience that basically rocked my proverbial world. While going on a book binge in Itaewon (the often cited “foreign section” of Seoul aka where foreigners go when they’re homesick–due to all of the foreign restaurants that serve something other than Korean cuisine, innumerable themed bars that are, again, not Korean and countless vendors selling clothing that is “American sized”) my coworker David and I took a break to indulge in some Thai food. When our food came out and our hands moved for utensils we were both silent for a moment as we picked up our forks with a certain awkwardness for how unnatural something once so ordinary had become. We had a good laugh about it, but the fact remains that I seem to know not what to do with a fork any longer and that, my friends, is WEIRD. Having grown to prefer using chopsticks, I found this instance of using a fork so hilarious not only for how strange it felt, but also for how primal and animalistic using a fork seems to me now. Forks somehow lack a gracefulness that comes with eating with chopsticks; using a fork requires movements that seem too aggressive to me, too similar to stabbing and shoveling even if it is just with vegetables and rice. This is already more than I ever needed to say on the topic of forks vs. chopsticks, but my point here is that the chopsticks beat the fork–I’ve found a new preference.

2. Heated floors are amazing. Seriously.

I’m too lazy to figure out (or google) what genius was behind the creation of heating a home through the floor, but this person, whoever they are, is easily on my favorite list because heated floors are awesome!! Waking up in the morning and stepping out of bed is made much better when the floor is nice and toasty. I don’t have a whole lot more to say about this except that it is really quite wonderful and everyone should experience the pleasure of heated floors someday.

3. The Korean education system is by no means perfect, but the U.S. could definitely take a lesson from them

Every student in Korea attends public school receiving a standard education across all subjects, but, beyond that, just about every Korean also attends a variety of hagwons, which are private specialty schools that offer further instruction on a specific area of study. I’m employed by an English academy/hagwon, but there are literally hagwons for every subject you could think up–math, science, taekwondo, art, Chinese, music, you get the point. Most of my students, ranging from elementary school grade through high school, attend classes everyday but Sunday from 9 AM through anywhere between 6 PM-11 PM. There are some breaks in between for meals and whatever necessary transportation, but, for the most part, kids in Korea are in school all day long. This system of schooling definitely has its drawbacks and in no way do I think how it’s done here is the ideal, but it’s worth nothing that Korean families and the Korean government do take education very seriously and their investment in both time, money and resources is one reflection of this fact. I, along with most Americans, am concerned about the state of the educational system in America and though I don’t know what exactly the solution(s) is/are, I do know that great measures need to be taken and changes need to be made because other countries, Korea included, are surpassing us in far too many areas. The fact that a thirteen year old in Korea can write a better essay in English than an American high school student is something that worries me as I’ve witnessed this to be the case far more often than I’m comfortable with.

4. Warm beverage vending machines are almost as amazing as heated floors

I do gain an immense pleasure from inserting 1000 won (less than $1) into a machine that will spit out a can of warm, sweet soy milk. 

5. Neon night light

My officetel/apartment is on the thirteenth floor of a fifteen story building and out my window at night the neon lights of love motels, restaurants, PC bongs (internet cafes), noraebongs (singing rooms), clubs and whatever other forms of entertainment warrants colored light signage are glowing bright. If I were on say the fifth floor, my room would probably never know the dark, but higher up the neon glow that radiates into my room is the most comforting and strangely soothing night light I’ve ever had.

6. Korean kids come up with the best English names

Most of my students have fairly generic English names (Sarah, Tom, John, Richard, Lisa), however there’s a handful that get creative and make the attendance roll significantly more entertaining. My particular favorites are Obi and Maybelline of the girls and Flash and Ocean of the boys.

7. Makgeolli my love, soju my death

Ugghhhh, soju is the worst. It’s downright awful and anytime that stuff shows up at the party (which is way too often) my liver, my brain and my entire body punish me severely. Soju is often compared to vodka and is a potent and unbelievably cheap distilled beverage, costing about 2,000 won (just over a $1) per bottle with an alcohol content of anywhere from a 25% – 45%. Added to all of this terribleness is the fact that soju is generally consumed in straight shots and there are loads of drinking rules that all work against the aforementioned liver. Makgeolli, on the other hand, is a wonderful Korean rice wine that is milky white with a subtle sweetness. Just as cheap as soju but a bit less strong, makgeolli is beloved amongst Koreans and for whatever reason, whenever they spot a foreigner drinking makgeolli they will immediately consider you their new best friend. Though it’s generally consumed plain, I have had makgeolli mixed with cider, which is quite sweet but a rather refreshing beverage.

8. Kimchi in everything, all of the time

When I first arrived in Korea I had a semi-open mind about consuming meat and figured maintaining my vegetarian diet wouldn’t work, but after one meal of pork with my Korean coworkers I quickly realized that my innards don’t know what to do with meat anymore and it was better to accept the confusion/intrigue/shock of Koreans than to miserably try to convert to a diet I don’t care for. This is where kimchi comes in. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish of spicy, pickled/fermented cabbage and is consumed with almost every single meal in Korea either as an ingredient in the main dish or as a side. Trying my darnedest to stay away from meat, kimchi has become the staple of my diet and most of my meals are centered around it–kimchi fried rice, kimchi stew, kimchi pancakes or a kimchi rice ball; my Korean life figures into having kimchi in everything all of the time. Fortunately, I love kimchi and all of the dishes that call for it.

**For the record, I haven’t been a proper vegetarian while living here as I have on occasion been eating fish, which is the only meat I’ve ever really loved and found difficult to give up when living in close proximity to the sea (as I did growing up in the Pacific Northwest and now in Korea).

9. The pleasures of Korean cinema

Before moving to Korea I became obsessed with the work of Korean director Park Chan-Wook and was especially enamored with his films Thirst and Lady Vengeance. Since living in Korea I haven’t watched all that many Korean films as finding titles with English subtitles can be difficult, but recently I went on a movie binge and am diving into the works of other well-regarded Korean directors. At the moment, my obsession is with Bong Joon-Ho and his most recent film, Mother. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen and is so well-crafted and stunning in all of its attributes–storyline, acting, character development, visuals. The thing about Korean cinema that I find so special is that I have yet to watch a film that isn’t breathtaking and, simply, great. When it comes to cinema, Korea seems to know what they’re doing. If there is anything you take away from my six month reflection, I hope at the very least it is that you need to watch a Korean film. 

I’m certain there are things I’ve left out, but these things are what immediately came to mind. My Korean experience has been phenomenal and this is no doubt a year of my life I will never forget. I could easily ramble on about my fascinations with my current home for days, but it’s getting late and the part of me that is obsessed with American television shows needs to be fed some of The West Wing (GO SANTOS!). Stay gold my friends. 

Tale of two mountains: Naejangsan (pt. 2)

As promised, I bring to you the second part of my mountain tale. Climbing Naejangsan was a completely different experience from Dobongsan and I sincerely cherish them both.

The journey to the top began on a Friday night at a bus station in Seoul where myself along with a handful of foreigners and a great many Koreans loaded onto a bus southern bound. The bus tour that we S.H.I.T.Y. hikers (again, I don’t know what the acronym comes out to be, which kind of defeats the purpose of an acronym, I know, but it is far too punny to insert S.H.I.T.Y. into sentences) joined was incredibly cheap (20,000 Won for round-trip bus fare) and apparently a tour for Korean singles looking for a hiker to love. This naturally brought about a few funny moments with older Korean men being half-jokingly flirtatious with whatever English they could muster.
Random tangent, one of my favorite parts of the hike is crossing paths with friendly Koreans (of which there are so many) that say “hello” or “hi” in English and get a big grin on their face when I (or any foreigner) respond with “annyonghaseyo.”

Anyhow, back to the bus. So, it’s midnight and we have about four hours until we get to the base of the mountain and start hiking. That’s right, this S.H.I.T.Y. hike (I promise I’ll stop now) was to commence with the light of the moon as our guide. Well, the moon and a flashlight. Unfortunately, I jinxed myself into not sleeping a lick on the bus when I made the comment to my friend Spenser that I can basically sleep anywhere–buses, trains, planes, park benches, cars, etc.. Nearing the base of the mountain, the bus made a pit-stop around 3:30 AM and most people used the time to get some breakfast in. Spenser, Andrea and I had a food party of fruit, crackers, kim bap and all sorts of other goodness while the rest of the folks on the bus either continued sleeping or went inside for a full-fledged Korean meal.

Once the bus got moving, it didn’t take long to get to our destination and in the pitch black of night we exited the bus bound for the peaks of Naejangsan. Aside from being mildly excited to see my own breath, I was immediately taken aback by the dark sky filled with stars. You’ve got to understand, in Seoul there are no stars to be seen–the city is simply too bright and they don’t come here anymore. In whatever mountain wilderness we had driven to, a mere four hours south, the sky was filled with the little jewels I nearly forgot still existed.

Hiking in the dark is oddly exhilarating. To not be able to see that far ahead of you or what’s surrounding you, and yet to have to be so careful and precise with of your footwork was, to say the least, a thrilling contrast. Feeling like we were on a mission, which I suppose we kind of were, we S.H.I.T.Y. hikers busted a move directed for the top, quickly passing our bus companions. We were absolutely speeding up the mountain, taking few breaks and constantly moving; this was one of many aspects of this hike that were quite different from my experience at Dobongsan where I took my sweet lazy time getting to the top. About an hour in we noticed that our visibility was increasing and that the sun was bound to show herself soon, which only made us move faster. At the first of eight peaks we would conquer that day, we were given a taste of what the morning looked like from up above the world.

Apparently, it looks something like sherbert

I took my careful time soaking up this sight; it really was something special. Being out experiencing the wilderness and nature in this way was and is something that I don’t think I do nearly enough. Everything about being up on that peak and watching the sun rise, hot and bright, made me feel alive in a way that honestly few things can.

Continuing onward, we made our way down steep, slippery leaved inclines, across rocky ridges and up formidable formations to eight peaks in total. This hike was a bit more treacherous and difficult than Dobongsan, which made me a bit uncomfortable about totting my fancy cam in, so the majority of the hike my Canon was tucked away in my bag, significantly limiting the number of photos taken on this jaunt.

S.H.I.T.Y. hikers onto the next peak

We made it to the first three peaks rather quickly. The traffic on the mountain was null as it was so early and the distance from peak to peak was rarely ever more than a kilometer. Despite our speedy hiking, we did take our time to rest, share in some delicious food and even burst into song. I’m not sure what brought it on, but at one point Andrea, Spenser and I began singing Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” I’ll let you imagine the looks we received. One aspect of Korean culture that I absolutely love is their communal nature; Koreans love to share with others. At one peak, the whole gang was sitting on a ledge and a group of Korean men came by of offering their Makguelli (Korean rice wine) and Kim Bap to all of us. This kind of instance isn’t unusual in Korea and it’s something about this place I really love. It reminds me of the generosity and kindness I found so surprising when I first moved to the Midwest.

New friends soaking up the morning sunshine

The rest of the hike went pretty smoothly, up until about the last hour when the mountain began getting wildly crowded and much of the group got separated on our way to the bottom. On my way down I met a few Korean men that had lived in Seattle and we had a great conversation about the Northwest. There English was excellent and the conversation certainly helped my shaky, worn muscles get to the bottom.

After hiking for about eight hours we were all pretty beat, but I couldn’t resist snapping some shots of the temple as well as the mountain we has just defeated.

My immediate response from this view: “We were just up there!!!”


Temple dweller

Despite having made it to the base of the mountain, we still had to walk a few kilometers to get to the bus. This walk felt like the longest walk EVER. Fortunately, there were some sights to see along the way including a persimmon tree, which looked to me like something imaginary:

Doesn’t this make you think of James and the Giant Peach or am I along in this?


The crew, walking it out

When we did finally make it to the bus, we all immediately took our shoes off, put on a fresh pair of socks and passed out. That was some of the best bus sleep I’ve ever had. Though the majority of us headed home to Seoul, a few hardcore hikers moved onto another town with yet another mountain to put them to the test. I may not have been as sore this time around, but still, there was no way I’d be climbing a mountain the next day, let alone a few flights of stairs! Color me impressed by those S.H.I.T.Y. adventure seekers. My Sunday was filled with West Wing watching, yoga posing (mostly stretching, let’s be honest) and coffee drinking.

Well, that pretty much sums up my first two hiking forays in Korea. Until my next detailed Korean experience, stay gold.

Tale of two mountains: Dobongsan (pt. 1)

I’ve spent the last two weekends teaching my legs a thing or two about hard work and pain by climbing a few of Korea’s voluptuous mountains. Both have teased and tempted me with their treacherous paths and tricky rock formations, but eventually Dobongsan and Naejangsan shared with me their many treasures of hues, views and fresh air feelings not often experienced. I can’t quite tell you what it feels like to conquer a mountain peak, to breath in that untainted, crisp air, to look down or across a ridge and see just how far you’ve come. It’s a feeling of success, glee, exhaustion and peace all combined and streaming fast through your veins; something like adrenaline, but more unique.  It’s a wonderfully addicting thing, this feeling, hence my tale containing not one, but two mountains. And, hopefully, many, many more of the mountains Korea holds upon its land.

First came Dobongsan, one of the closest mountains to Seoul itself, a mere 90 minute subway ride from my home in Anyang. Though my Halloween weekends are typically spent fiending on candy and recovering from previous evening shenanigans, this October 31st was spent not in costume, but rather in gear that made it clear to all of the appropriately attired Korean hikers that I was not a usual to the sport.  I should mention that Koreans take hiking very seriously. They also take their hiking clothes very seriously, always prepared with their brand-name gear: brightly colored hiking shirts, pants, sturdy boots, long hiking poles, heavy packs (filled with plenty of delicacies to create a feast at the peak), etc..

Though I was originally supposed to hike Dobongsan with my friend Spenser and the S.H.I.T.Y. hiking group, Spenser was late to our meeting spot and after some waiting, I decided to head to the mountain for a solo adventure. Upon my arrival at the base of Dobongsan, I got a taste of just how popular a hobby this is in Korea.

Flood of hikers crossing the street from the subway to the trail leading to Dobongsan

Aside from the many vendors selling hiking gear, tools and trinkets, there were a great many restaurants and tables splayed with snacks, including what could only be considered the hiking essentials: makguelli (Korean rice wine), soju (Korean vodka), ramen bowls and water. They might even be displayed in order of importance.


Fishy snacks!

When I finally came to the hiking trail, I almost immediately fell under a trance from the fall nature show of leaves making like acrobats, transforming their colors. Living among buildings and cement sometimes makes you forget just how magical nature can be.

Though there were innumerable options of routes and trails to go on as well as destinations, I decided to make Uiam Rock my first point. Being a novice at this whole hiking thing, I stopped frequently along the way and spent some quality time taking in the little things. I noticed on my hike to the top many rock stacks lining the trail, or placed atop boulders, and later discovered that “rock stacking” is a practice of meditation, and that each layer is supposed to represent a family member you’re praying for or a wish that the individual has.

A rather impressive rock stack

After a few hours I finally made it to the top of Uiam Rock and of all the people in all of Seoul, I found Spenser at the top the rock!! Well, technically he found me when he saw a view that looked like a mighty fine photo op and, of course, there I was with my fancy cam getting busy.


Views from the top

For the not so novice

After snacking on some kimbap (literal translation is “roll rice”) and mixed nuts, Spenser and I felt rejuvenated and continued along the ridge line to Jaunbong Peak. About halfway along we came across this amazing viewpoint:

What you can’t see is the Koran women insisting we pose with peace signs!

A few hours of hiking the ridge line brought us to a busy Jaunbong Peak:

And just over a few steep steps later, we made it!

“We were just down there!!!”

When we did finally make it to the top, Spenser disclosed that he has a slight fear of heights (surprise!!) and after taking in the chilly breeze and beauty at the top, we decided to make the trek to the bottom for a hot meal (my favorite kimchicheegae, aka kimchi stew) and some celebratory makguelli and cider (best drink in all of Asia, I swear to you)!

And, of course, we couldn’t make it to the bottom without making a temple pit-stop:

There are so many wonders hidden in this mountain and I’m sure there are just as many in every other Korean san. In a few days I’ll give a play by play of my conquering Naejangsan, but until then, enjoy the tale of one mountain and the many photos that come with it.