Thursday, February 27, 2014

Seollal 2013 at the Korean Folk Village

Yet another post that took a year to get around to. Better late than never, I guess. 

One of the first (and one of the only, haha) things I learned how to say in Korean was "Happy New Year!" or, rather, "Please receive a lot of luck in the new year". I'd copypaste the hangul here since I don't have the ability to type it on this computer, but my exceedingly simple blog formatting doesn't take kindly to such things, so you're just gonna have to Google it.

Probably the most popular traditional game that's played with family members on this holiday is yunnori, the stick game. It's pretty fun, and my former manager can tell you how it's done:

For each major Korean holiday that I've been here I've tried to do something, well, Korean. The Lunar New Year I just posted about was spent at Everland, the DMZ and the noraebang, and last Chuseok (the autumn harvest holiday that everyone just calls Korean Thanksgiving) a Colombian acquaintance and I made the mistake of thinking that Gyeongbokgung, the largest of the five palaces, would be deserted. I mean, why would Koreans visit one of the biggest Korean historical sites in the biggest Korean city on one of the two biggest Korean holidays? Nonsense.

They were actually turning people away at the door, so we ended up drinking makgeolli and browsing at the nearby Insadong traditional market. Still counts!

There are often discounts and specials for foreigners on these holidays, as Koreans spend them with family, which means that Seoul is about as deserted as it ever gets. Last Lunar New Year, though, Si and I decided to head down to the traditional Korean Folk Village outside Yongin. 

Oh, and we went skiing at the Yangji Pine resort because it was crazy cheap for waygooks. 

By "went skiing" I mean that I attempted it for about an hour and gave up by the third time I ate shit, landing again and again on the same shoulder and rolling partway down the beginners' slope. And I wasn't even drinking :( 

Anyway, at the Folk Village, the running joke of the day was that the place was obviously a kitschy tourist attraction that didn't attempt to cling too closely to the genuine historical experience it promised, so everything became the "ironic traditional Korean et cetera", like the woman spinning silk who stopped to answer her traditional Korean smartphone. It was impossible to avoid the thick, quagmirey mud in the park because the thaw had set in. On the little folding pamphlet map I'd grabbed it mentioned a "traditional Korean dirt road experience", so I was like, "I'm pretty sure we're on that now", as our shoes slowly sank and we became hopelessly trapped somewhere between the traditional Korean convenience store and the oddly, not-quite-life-sized cardboard cutouts of famous actors with way too much plastic surgery on the traditional Korean period drama set.

My favourite bits were probably the the archery practice range (which you have to pay extra for, damn it), the mock medieval village and, of course, the snow sledding. The hill you can go down at Everland is complete garbage compared to the one at the Folk Village, so don't waste your time. As you can see toward the end of the first video below, the one at this place also has no lanes carved into the snow, so you can basically just embrace the spirit of wanton destruction, become a melee weapon and hurl yourself into adjacent visitors. 
The giant yunnori game would have been one of my favourites, too, had I known how to play it at the time. The sticks are about five feet long and are probably made of the same thick, foamy stuff as Funnoodles (you know, those colourful things you'd smack people in the head with at public pools in the 90's), so hurling them into the air looks like great fun. Even though I wasn't able to get the gist of the game from watching people at the time, I'd highly recommend it. I'd have much preferred to be drunk for all this, too, as no traditional Korean experience is truly complete without soju.

(traditional mortar and pestle experience)

(traditional photo saturation experience)

Traditional.. Ermm moving right along..

Unfortunately we were only able to catch one of the scheduled shows, but minus the excessive cracking of whips (that are only okay to use on people if they're into that sort of thing imo), it was actually really impressive. I can't say I've ever seen a guy jump rope on a galloping horse before.

(traditional Korean LoL fan admiring traditional Korean unicorn)

All said and done it was a nice day out, and it's one of those things you just kind of have to tick off the list if you're going to be here for a while.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Doctor Fish Experience

Shortly after arriving in Korea, I decided to try the weird and wonderful dermatological phenomenon that is what they call "doctor fish". That's when you stick your feet in a small pool of water and have lots of eager little fish (a small variety of toothless carp) nom bits of dead skin off. Sounds attractive, right?

I've learned that these fish have not caught on in the States not only because the concept is strange and foreign, but also because it can be even less clean than I would have imagined. Anyone with a delicate immune system, open cut or sore probably shouldn't get this treatment because of the small but ever-present risk of infection. It's impossible to keep a container of live animals completely clean, and like much of what I've seen concerning safety issues in Korea (including but not limited to: keeping kids on scooters away from open glass-blowing kilns, overloaded vehicles, driving on the sidewalk, lack of shoring in trenches and almost being hit by a small backhoe on at least two occasions because construction areas sometimes aren't roped off) it's actually illegal in most U.S. states. 

But hey, that's OK! It's fun, and you should try it. Just don't blame me if you end up with hepatitis or something~ The place we went to in Gangnam cost less than $2 for 20 minutes of therapeutic nibbling, and you can have coffee and toast and borrow a book to read afterward. Unfortunately, it no longer exists; the turnover rate for businesses is super high in Korea. But there are more where it came from! They even have them at the COEX Aquarium. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Weekend (1.30 - 2.2): Everland and the DMZ for Seollal

We got a four-day weekend for the Lunar New Year, and I originally thought I'd be spending it at home doing a whole lot of nothing because I'm broke enough to be cold and hungry, but it was not so. Si invited me to tag along with him and a couple of other English gentlemen (pfft, yeah right) on their excursions. 

I ended up learning a bit about Korea, sort of like when we went to the Folk Village for Seollal last year. I'll post about that next, seeing as how it's been a year and I still haven't gotten around to it because uploading and editing the accompanying videos is such a pain in the ass. 
One thing I finally took the time to learn about was the way they figure your age here, which has never been satisfactorily explained to me by a Korean. Whenever I ask someone about it they just end up confusing themselves, which doesn't lend a whole lot of credibility to the system. I read the Wiki article, and it turns out that's based on this holiday as well. And that I'm apparently 27. Which also doesn't inspire fondness for the system. Now that I get it, I'm just going to forget about it. Wasn't that fun?

Okay, so, first of all, Everland had a special 50% Seollal discount going for foreigners, so we spent Friday at the theme park. Unfortunately, the huge roller coaster and Ferris wheel were both closed and the much-anticipated area where you slide down snow hills on inner tubes (do it at the Folk Village instead) was pretty lame, but we still had a good time. 

The park is loosely based on Disneyland, certainly just up to the point that they can't be sued for copyright infringement. Can't say I'm surprised that the best rides were in the "American Adventure" section, either. Double Rock Spin is definitely the most exciting; it's almost hard to believe Koreans (you know, the people who wear life jackets in thigh-deep water) can handle it. 

There are a couple of ski lift-type rides, one of which takes you to a zoo area I didn't know they had. I mean, I figured "safari" meant "safari", and that it was separate and cost extra.


Delicious snacks abound, including but not limited to the ones I chose: giant Dippin' Dots and hot buttered corn on the cob. 

They see us derpin', they hatin'

They were supposed to have a "Snow Festival" and "Romantic Illumination" thing going, but oddly, there's been virtually no snow in Seoul this year. I guess it snowed enough for the remainder of the decade in the winters of '11 - '12 and '12 - '13, so the climate just said screw it this time around. The lights and Christmas music were nice, if a bit out of place and untimely.

After Everland we went and had a big awesome Mexican dinner, and I went home afterward because of how freaking early I had to get up on Saturday to go on the DMZ tour.

Our guide was an absolutely ridiculous caricature of a 40-something woman who called herself "Nana" and supplied us with countless inaccurate, racism-tinged tidbits of information and trivia. She talked in a very stereotypically Asian way - the way you'd impersonate someone like her to make fun of her - and I'm sure she hammed it up intentionally. 
Among the many fascinating things she taught us was the apparent fact that many North Koreans attempt to cross the Han River and defect to South Korea in one particular area the tour bus passes every day, resulting in ongoing incidents that are not reported in any national media but that culminate in the 20-ish year-old ROK soldiers mowing down the starving refugees. 

... Right.

She warned us of missiles and landmines in an attempt to make the tour more exciting, and assuaged our fears by subsequently rallying our spirits and telling us that, if we died, we were all going to die together, "and go the paradise in this bus". 

What's more, I had no idea that the United States asked South Korea to assassinate Kim Jeong Un "like Osama bin Laden" but that they refused (rather, "denied"), because they "don't want any more war". This was not the first subtle hint I encountered over the weekend that attempted to place blame on the U.S. for starting a war that the South Koreans apparently never wanted to fight. Oh, I'm awfully sorry about that. We should have just pissed off and let you all live under the tyranny of the world's most enduring and sequestered fascist dictatorship together. If only you'd made your wishes clear from the beginning we could have avoided the rapid economic and social development now plaguing your people. :x

I really lost it when she told us that we'd be able to look into North Korea from an observation deck, that we might spot some North Koreans, and that we shouldn't be surprised when we saw them because "they are a very small and a ugly, but you know, kind of a cute". She made them sound like monkeys! Come on, you're already racist against everyone else, you can't be racist against the other Koreans, too! -facepalm-

At any rate, the first stop was a station in Paju called Imjingak, where the Bridge of Freedom and a randomly-placed and desolate but immaculate carnival are located. It's not a creepy juxtaposition at all, seeing the colourful silent rides just across the parking lot from a memorial, all the barbed wire and huge masses of wrought iron riddled with bullet holes.

It had that distinctively peculiar post-Communist vibe.

Not creepy.. Not creepy..


I'm also not 100% sure what "peace resting place" means, but thought it was interesting that they chose something that could be interpreted in two very different ways.

(Either way, it's a traditional Korean snack bar experience)

Come and ring this enormous Bell of Peace! Only 10 dollars.

These have messages written on them by South Koreans and are tied to a fence near the Bridge of Freedom.

The Bridge crosses the Imjin River, and used to be a railway. This train was ambushed and heavily fired upon during the Korean War.

I thought the frozen-solid Imjin River and the little pavilion next to it were pretty:

The next stop on the tour is the so-called Third Tunnel of Aggression, found in 1978. It's one of four known tunnels dug by the North in attempts to invade the South, though there are probably a lot more. First they have you watch a very tasteless, propagandistic movie that provides some basic information about the war and subsequent attempts at invading the South. Also, wild migratory birds. Derp.

To see the invasion tunnel - which would have been capable of letting through 30,000 soldiers per hour, if you'll believe it - you have to walk down a steep access tunnel, as it's pretty far underground. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take phones or cameras down there, and it's not easy to sneak them in because you have to go through a metal detector. You also have to wear a hard hat. The whole time we were down there, the guys repeatedly bonked their heads on the low uneven ceiling. The tunnel gets progressively narrower and more damp, looking more like a movie set with its walls of rough-hewn granite than a piece of history. At the bottom, there's basically a small door to North Korea. You can sort of see inside it a little bit, just enough to tell that there's an open space of some kind that continues on.

There are various small holes in the wall meant for dynamite, and the whole interior is painted black under the guise of being a coal mine. Good one, North Korea, I'm sure they totally would have fallen for that. 

Climbing back up is kind of a bitch if you're out of shape. We had a race, and I wasn't last. Good enough. 

I went outside without my coat for a bit to cool down, and walked around the landscaped grounds surrounding the building. We were told that the small triangular warning signs on the surrounding fences signify that there could still be landmines beyond that point.

Oh, and I randomly approached this cute young soldier (this is probably the only country in which that's automatically redundant) and asked if I could take a photo of him. He was a little hesitant, and seemed genuinely upset that he didn't look more serious in it.

Ah yes, and then there was yet another in the large assortment of grand and impressive statues I saw over the course of these two days, meant to symbolise reunification. Chris pretending to get smashed in it, I guess, represents re-derpification.

At Dorasan Observatory (the next stop), you can look into North Korea with those viewfinder things that take coins, and it was neat even though we couldn't see much of anything because of the drizzly, foggy, overcast weather. The biggest flag in the world is clearly visible, as are a number of roads and guard towers. It's hard to get a decent picture without going over the no-photo line, but I'm sure it's even harder being the soldier who has to tell 127 stupid assholes to stop taking photos where they're not allowed to every single day. I guess a few people even got their cameras taken. I'm not sure if they got them back.

I pride myself on being able to take numerous photos in no-picture zones, but I didn't risk screwing around and getting my little HD vidcam taken. This was the best I could do without stepping over the line: a manned South Korean guard tower.

I like how much is going on in this picture, even though it's of completely stationary things.

The final stop on the basic tour we took is Dorasan Station, which has never been used because the North won't allow trains to cross the border. Don't ask me why so much taxpayer money was spent on building it; maybe the tourists flowing through actually make it profitable enough to justify. Outside the station is where the people who work at the Kaesong Complex park - mostly for safety reasons, I'm sure. Instead of a train, they take shuttles there and back.

While we standing out here some cranes also flew over, and I never knew they made such an interesting, eerie sound.

I could only get the scrawniest and most nervous-looking of the Fabulous Arm Tassel Brigade (that's both their official rank and title) to take a photo with me, but it came out nice anyway.

"Hey, she's taking a picture, try to look serious."

I've been collecting neat postcards from especially memorable trips and sites since I moved to Asia, and you can get a DMZ one plus chocolate soybean candy for less than $3, so of course I was like, um, yes.                                                        All in all it was a really cool, interesting tour and I'd recommend it to anyone as a slightly-more-than-half-day-trip. It took me a while to do it, but that's yet another big one ticked off the list.
Check out these sleeping beauties on the bus back to Seoul, lol. ^

The last stop on the interesting and informative but sometimes-bizarre DMZ tour was the Ginseng Center in Hongdae, which couldn't have been less interesting for me at that particular moment. Even though I was told to stop taking photos I got a nice clear one of this lovely message, though:

Wow, Ginseng Center, way to go. In case you're wondering how Korea feels about homosexuality, this isn't the most accurate way to sum it, but it gets the idea across.

If it makes you feel any better, though, we followed this up by going to Insa-dong for food and had the very phallic, novelty Cane Ice Cream that's so popular there, even when it's freezing.


And as I told Eric, there's a naughty grandma every single time. That day it was an older Korean lady with an unnecessarily grave expression holding two ice cream canes and eating them alternately. ><

We had vegetarian Korean food and then Indian food, because deciding to be adventurous at a traditional Korean vegetarian restaurant isn't the best plan when you're quite hungry and normally eat meat. Cafe Little India is very quaint and the decor is great, but I had already eaten and can't say anything about the food. Although, the women in the kitchen did stand and mill about confusedly for quite a while, almost as if no one had ever actually come in and ordered anything and they were trying to decide how to handle it, lol.

The original intent was to go to Gyeongbokgung - which I still haven't properly seen, either - but it was too rainy. We ended up going to the Korean War Memorial and Museum at Samgakji Station instead, because it's inside, and free. And it gave the day a nice, cohesive theme. It's definitely worth a look, though it starts with the Vietnam War and continues with that for a while, at the end there are paleolithic artifacts, and in the middle there's a section that just kind of says, "Hey, Korea was in these places too! We were there! We sent, like, 10 guys! See?!"

(insert random enormous traditional drum)

Not sure if entryway or mothership...

It's shit like this that makes it hard to find you intimidating, Korea...

Star Date KR 201421...

Fashion meets function. I like.

...Metal Gear Solid?

The main Korean War Memorial is a large, domed stone room at the end of a long hallway with starry LED lights on the ceiling and a few rows of alternating white pillars on each side, designed to give the impression of an expansive or infinite space, I guess. It reminds me of Yayoi Kusama's firefly/space room (for which I've seen several different titles). There's a large water feature in the center. It's peaceful.

Not sure what the significance of the monk being the focal point in this one is, but it's 
interesting either way.

And finally, you can't go into battle wearing last season's styles, can you? 
I, for one, want to be fabulous when I die. Many style. So war. Wow.

A rare (saturated) view of empty streets in central Seoul.

At this point I was pretty tired and figured I'd head home, but it ended up being one of those times when alcohol gave me my second wind. Namely, a fancy cocktail in a coconut at The Bungalow followed by a June Bug.

This makes me think of the Flash Gordon theme Queen did - Oh-ohhhh, FLASH!

We finished the night with a (norae)bang. That was terrible, I'm sorry.

Here's a video of Chris doing the Mr Blobby dance to Feliz Navidad:

... or, actually, with floating neon umbrellas. Whatever. 
It was an awesomely busy holiday weekend.