miyanoura dake

miyanoura dake

taking a rest

taking a rest

emerging from the forest

emerging from the forest

magical forest

magical forest

gnarly stump

gnarly stump

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


I finally got all the photos from Sandra, so now to post a blog about my trip to the wonderful island of Yakushima! It truly is a great place, but shhh, don’t tell anybody about it or it might get spoiled. Seriously, it is a popular destination for Japanese tourists, and some of the trails to the more famous spots can get congested during the peak seasons; but even so the island is far from being overrun by sightseers. And it’s not built up and uglified, either, which to me seems hardly short of a miracle given the vast natural beauty of the place. The few large hotels on the island are neither obtrusively in the villages (the biggest of which is still small) nor fronting the seashore; whether by chance or regulation they are safely tucked away somewhere out of direct eyesight. There is some industry and related facilities but their scale seemed relatively small.

The mountains and forests are by far the largest and most obtrusive (in the best possible way) things on the island, complete with many little Yakushima deer, macaques (small monkeys), and of course the famous yakusugi trees. These are huge, ancient trees in the cypress family. The oldest generation of these trees is revered by the Japanese. Each is over 1,000 years old and each has its own name. There are probably several hundred that have survived the logging of past periods. The oldest and largest, “Jomon sugi”, is 25 meters tall, has a circumference of 16.4 meters and is between 2,600 and 7,200 years old. I saw this yakusugi on the second day of our backpacking excursion, which I’ll recount shortly. Most of the yakusugi are about half Jomon sugi in all statistics except height.

Jomon sugi

Besides the mountains, which are the most impressive draw of the place, there is the seashore surrounded by coral and a few small sandy beaches. The vegetation goes right down to the oceanside in many places, and especially in the south there are many tropical plant species such as palm trees and mangroves. (We even checked out a huge outdoor garden, which was looked more like a conservatory except they harvested the tropical fruits. We got to sample some exotic fruits there.) Despite the seemingly small area of the sandy beaches, Yakushima still manages to serve as a hatching grounds for a large number of sea turtles. This is one thing I didn’t get to see, but our time was short and we couldn’t do everything.

Shin-takatsuka mountain hut

We found out that it takes a lot of work to see the most beautiful sights in Yakushima. The trail left us sore and we decided to shorten our backpacking trip from three to two days (actually a little more than two because we had to hike out a few kilometers on the third day). We did quite a hike on the first day with full packs and by the time we got to Jomon sugi night was falling (photo above, almost too dark to see). We were almost too exhausted to appreciate how impressive the tree was. However, during the first part of the day we got to see plenty of hardly less impressive trees while we were still fresh.

It rains a lot on Yakushima, and while this can be inconvenient for hiking and outdoor activities, it is also the cause of much of the beauty found on the island. Within the jungle, trees and rocks are covered with moss and small plants of various hues and textures, and during a leisurely amble through the forest one can feel entranced by the magical environment. The trees seemed to speak to me, telling me to imitate their peace and self-assurance and teaching me the way to live and thrive in the world. I hope I will remember to heed their call.

View from near Miyanoura dake

If the first day was the day to experience the enchantment of the forest, the second day lent itself to impressive mountain views. On this day, after a dry and comfortable night in a mountain hut (the huts are free to use and prevent people from having to pitch tents, thus reducing the environmental impact) we broke out of the tree line into an elevated area of shrubs and dwarf-size trees, ascending eventually to Miyanoura dake, a rocky peak at an elevation of about 2,000 meters.

Yakushima is simply bristling with steep mountains and flung with boulders like a pebbly hedgehog. On a clear (or clear-enough) day this makes for great views and photos. The mountains seem to be most often covered with clouds and fog, so we were lucky to have some visibility during our trek. At the top of Miyanoura dake, we were scolded by some Japanese hikers for having set our packs down on some grass. They managed to inform us in broken English that there are many mountain flowers that grow there and that we should place our packs (and feet) on the rocks only. We heated up our lunch of ramen, feeling grateful for the vista and for having been enlightened in the matter of the delicate mountain flora.

Hana-no-ego highland marsh

On the third day (Wed), we woke up in the early morning to a deluge of rain beating the cabin roof and the ground outside. We had the hut (according to the guidebook with a capacity of 60) practically to ourselves, presumably for the rainy forecast. Eventually, all suited up, we navigated the final 1.5 kilometers of trail to the road. Two kilometers further on was the bus stop. It rained practically all of that day and the next. We had scheduled our hike well. The rest of the day was taken up by riding several buses back to Miyanoura village, where we had left a bit of extra luggage, and doing some much-needed laundry.

Camping at Yakushima Youth Travel Village near Kurio

The following morning we rode the bus to the other extreme of the island (the southwest), near a small village called Kurio, where we intended to spend our remaining few days. We decided to camp out at Yakushima Youth Travel Village, a friendly and accommodating place; the only downside being that it is sort of out-of-the-way. It is in a beautiful spot and near the island’s most famous waterfall, but it’s not the most convenient location for getting food, etc. However it suited us and we enjoyed two days there, exploring the seashore, Oko-no-taki waterfall (88m high, photo below) and the outdoor fruit garden, and relaxing in an onsen, a natural seaside hot spring (see photo below).

On Saturday we decided to take the bus from Kurio early in order to catch the 12:00 ferry back to Kagoshima (where we had to fly out from on Sunday morning) so we would have a bit of time to explore there. However, we had a couple of hours of extra time in Miyanoura before the ferry left, and I knew just the thing. On Thursday morning before leaving for Kurio, I had stumbled upon a nice coffee shop searching for breakfast. It was a place with music, plants, good coffee and food, and some uniqueness to it. So I convinced Sandra to go there with me on Saturday. The coffee was good. The jalapeño pizza hit the spot. And the ginger ale was dry and real. I was happy.

Oko-no-taki waterfall

The final thing worthy of a mention on the trip was the few hours we spent in Kagoshima Saturday afternoon and evening. After checking-in to our guesthouse, we took another, very short ferry to Sakurajima, an almost-island with an active volcano. There are several good hot springs there, and we spent several hours relaxing in one of them. I think I really needed it after running around Yakushima. This onsen was a little less rustic and also larger than the one in Yakushima, but it was still a very natural setting, being as it was all constructed with local stone, tucked at the base of a cliff, towered over on the cliff side by a huge mangrove tree, and literally at the edge of the ocean.

Mangrove tree near Yakushima Fruit Garden

Despite the fact that I was very active during almost the whole trip, I still returned feeling refreshed, having been away from the classroom and distracted and enriched by other, fulfilling activities. Now I feel quite ready to complete my final 2 ½ months here. The next thing, which I am already contemplating, is what kind of a break to take when I finish my year, and also what to do next. I will be posting about this, I hope, in the near future. Until then, take care all!

Seaside onsen        

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Too much stress

It hasn't been good. They've been working me hard: for the past two terms, 6 solid teaching hours per day, plus a couple of hours to prep and grade. It might not seem like a lot, but teaching can be intense. It requires a lot of energy, as anyone who has taught before surely knows. And at my school there are very few breaks. Just two weeks a year, to be precise, plus a handful of 3-day weekends. We don't get the normal vacations the public schools get. And when you're teaching full-time (I'm actually teaching overtime and have been for more than four months) you really need those breaks to recover and recuperate. I'm not a fan of jobs that keep you constantly going at a high output and leave you with little time to relax or reflect. So I'll probably never be rich, but then again I probably wouldn't want to be anyway.

This blog entry really has nothing interesting in it about Korea or anything, so I apologize for that, but my life really has been very work-a-day. What's more, and maybe this is unfortunate, having to work this much and sustain a high level of stress for so long has worn me down emotionally and has turned my attitude toward Korea somewhat more sour than it was a few months ago. I feel myself resenting things about everyday life here, little things that normally wouldn't bother me. And I've gone from being sure about returning for another year, to not so sure and sure I need a break even if I do come back. There is the EPIC program teaching in public schools that sounds interesting, but thus far I haven't found the desire to look into it very much. 

In addition to not being sure about my occupation next year, I've even lost motivation to plan the trip to China I had assumed I'd be taking at the close of my contract in October. I was going to spend maybe three weeks in Szechuan and Yunnan provinces in southwestern China, exploring the beautiful mountains and interesting towns. But of course, that takes a lot of planning and the trip itself would not be without stress. I definitely want to do that at some point, but right now I've started to think about instead going somewhere where I can just relax and kick back for awhile before returning home to visit my family. Like visiting friends in Spain or Europe.

We'll see. Maybe just starting to plan the China trip would get me excited about it. Whatever happens, I still am going to Yakushima (Japan) a little over a week from now. It'll be a week of camping, backpacking and just generally bumming around. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Korean Country Living

It's been a while since my last update, so I ought to apologize to you all for my lack of consistency. It's not a great excuse, but I have been very busy teaching. I now teach 6 hours a day, five days a week--and that's only teaching hours not including preparation or grading! I've been getting a bit of overtime pay, though, so that compensates somewhat.

I didn't intend to write about work, but while I'm on the subject...things have kind of normalized since I last wrote about teaching. I don't love the work, and it's still stressful, but I'm more accustomed to it now and the weeks fly by. Assuming I stay another year, which I'm seriously considering, I may well switch to a public school or possibly even teach conversation classes at a university. Although the students' level of English is generally higher at a hagwon (a private academy such as the one I'm teaching at) there tends to be a lot of added stress because it is in the private sector. English is big money in Korea, and lots of people invest in the better academies. So that translates to a lot of pressure on the staff and teachers to perform at a high level to keep up the school's reputation. And it's helpful to keep in mind that actually learning English is only a small part of what's going on at the English hagwons. Whole books could be written about this subject (maybe they already have).

But getting to my intended subject. Recently I have been aching to get away from city sounds, smells, and craziness; just to take a short break, breathe fresh air and listen to nature's sounds (and also the sounds of people living more in tune with nature). This weekend I had three days, so my friend Sandra and I planned to head to her sister's mother-in-law's house in Goesan, which is the province just to the south of where I live, almost in the center of South Korea; and also to just drive around and explore the surrounding countryside. 

On Friday, it took us about 5 hours to drive what would have normally taken two hours or less. I guess everyone had the same idea as us, to get out of the city for the three-day weekend. By the time we finally arrived, it was time to look for a place to camp or stay, so after another hour or two of looking around, finding nothing, and exploring a nice waterfall along the way, we pulled into the yard of a house with two older ladies sitting in front to inquire. It turned out there was nowhere around we could stay, but the lady whose house it was told us we could camp right in her yard. She was very friendly. She even let us use her outdoor faucet to wash our dishes and eat on her ondol (raised wooden platform for sitting, lounging, and eating) in front of the house. But we had seen some picnic tables just a few meters down the road on the opposite side, next to a stream, so we chose that spot to cook our dinner and relax for an hour or two before bed.

The following day, contrary to the forecast on wunderground.com (I think I'll have to find a more reliable source for the weather in Korea), it started raining early and rained steadily, though lightly, all day. But that didn't stop us from exploring another river valley in the morning before driving to meet Sandra's sister at the mother-in-law's house just up the road. To get to the house we had to drive several miles up a single-lane country road (unlike on the highway, we met no cars here) flanked by fields of rice, young pepper plants, and other freshly-planted crops. At the end of the lane, the road turned 90 degrees and went up an embankment with a tall, narrow, ivy-covered barn one side. We parked beside the barn and got out. Glancing up the driveway, I could see other low structures peeking out over stone walls and amongst herbage. From the very first, the property was the epitome of "organic": it was clear that every stage of it was built in harmony and cooperation with the land. With the exception of the new house, built 20 years ago, and perhaps the metal farm implements and window panes, all of the structures and items seemed to be built from stuff found right on the land. The old house and barns were made of wood and mud bricks, the plows and baskets from the local wood, and the roofs and beehives fashioned from rice-straw. The four or so old buildings and the new house to their rear (also small) were all arranged in an irregular row along the drive and tucked into the hillside, with trees in back and shrubs in front for shelter, and beyond those, their fields, where the grandfather, now 80 years old, still works every day.

It turned out we were not the only guests. Sandra's sister's sister-in-law and her husband were also there, besides Sandra's sister, husband, and three nephews. (The only people actually living at the house nowadays are the two grandparents, but they seem to like entertaining; I was informed that on special holidays and occasions there can be as many as 40 guests, all family and extended family, and most of them stay for a day or two, packed like sardines, sleeping on the many mats laid out from wall to wall in the small living room and three bedrooms.) We arrived just before dinner, which upon our arrival was quickly set up in the greenhouse just in front of the new house. It was to be an outdoor dinner--perfect! We handed the samgeopsal (fresh slices of pork similar to bacon) we had brought to the boys who were tending the grill and added it to the slices of duck already being stewed. Soon we were seated on the floor at low tables and feasting on the many side dishes along with rice, soup, and meat. After dinner, it didn't take us long to get tired, and after setting up the tent in the greenhouse for the boys, we all headed to bed. I felt privileged to have my own room, even though I offered to sleep with the boys. There are no beds in the house; everyone sleeps on the floor on mats like thick padded quilts with blankets as coverings. I found it very comfortable and slept soundly. (An interesting aside: We spotted a bright green tree frog in the house. I caught it and let it go outside. That was a first!)

The next day was Sunday, but I guess the day starts early in the country, because by 6:30 everyone was up and about. At 7:30 I was seated, feeling a bit groggy, at the table with all the family. Unlike in the States, breakfast in Korea is not much different from any other meal: we ate rice, fermented-soypaste soup (toenjang jjiggae), and many sidedishes such as different roots and leaves of plants (for example, pepper plant leaves), each having been fermented or prepared in a unique way. It's very healthy food, I reckon. Afterwards, we geared up for a hike by a beautiful reservoir nearby. I have included some pictures of the setting here, but it's hard to do justice to the beauty of the place. The fog rolled across the hills, which were in turn reflected in the emerald-colored lake. The path and landscaping around the lake was so nicely done as to actually enhance the scenery. A rare jewel, that place, and not nearly as frequented as other areas. On the far end of the path (though not of the reservoir, which stretched farther) we rode a ferry back. Besides one other small craft, it was the only other boat I saw the whole time. I wished I had my canoe from back home, because this would have been the perfect spot for it. I'm not sure if boats were not allowed there or if the locals were just not into boating. On our return we all sat down for a lunch much resembling our breakfast, but with the addition of pajon, which is a traditional "pancake" made with flour and onion grass--delicious! After a short nap, we packed the car and headed back. This time Sandra's sister and younger nephew rode with us. (Her brother-in-law and other two nephews rode in their Kia Sportage.)

All in all, the weekend was everything I had hoped it would be, probably more. I really gained a new appreciation for Korean country life, and country living in general. It made me seriously reflect once again on my own life and values. I could picture myself living like that. However, I realize that a lot of generational knowledge and experience goes into it, and you don't learn how to live like that in a few weeks or even a few years. Part of their livelyhood, besides their crops, came from the many bees they kept which produced honey for them. Many of the beehouses were built in traditional fashion, from the hollowed-out cross section of a small log roofed and insulated with dried rice plants (see photo above). The honey is so precious that one large jar (it looked to be about a liter) sells, if I got it right, for about USD $300! They told me to eat a lot while I was there, as it will likely be a while before I get real honey again. Another product from the bees is the honeycomb, which is basically just wax and honey, and they chew on it, suck down the honey and spit out the wax. It's delicious, and they gave me a pound or so to take home! They informed me that chewing on the stuff helps people who have stomach problems.

It's getting late, so that will have do for now. I have gone on a few other hiking trips and excursions since my previous entry, but they weren't anything too unique. One thing that is perhaps worth relating briefly is last Friday night. After work (we finish at 10 pm), I joined some of the other teachers at my school for a night out. After dinner, we eventually ended up at a noraebang (picture a small, private karaoke room with good sound) where we stayed till 5am. Afterwards, one of the guys got the idea to hike Suri mountain and catch the sunrise! I don't think he was serious, but another teacher and I both said we would be up for it. So we changed over and met up a few minutes later. By the time we reached the top, the sun was high in the sky. The climb also revitalized us a bit, so we hiked for a few more hours before heading back and crashing. That was a night (and morning) to remember!

One more note before I sign out. For summer break, I have 9 days at the end of July, and I've already bought my plane ticket for...


If you're curious, look it up. Otherwise, I'm sure I'll be posting about it a few months from now (though hopefully my next blog entry will be before that!). I hope you are all doing well. I'd really love to hear from any of you, and I apologize to those I haven't responded to in a while. Hopefully I will correct that soon.

Until next time, be at peace.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How do I envision my life?

Being far from home, I find myself reflecting from time to time on my path and future. I have had countless ideas over the years of different careers I might pursue or adventures I might set out on. But when I speak of envisioning my life (whether near or distant in time) I mean something other than choosing a career or planning a specific goal. I mean, rather, creating a mental picture of the kind of life I want to live--its style and texture; its values and priorities. I always assumed I would eventually have to choose some path; this choice would be the event that would set my life in a new direction and determine the shape of my future. But recently I've shifted my focus to creating a vision. The choices, I imagine, will conform to the shape of the vision. This shift has not been something intentional. But by journaling about it and choosing to share it,  I make it more so.

Recently, I've envisioned myself living a life close to family and friends; a simple life with few attachments; a life close to nature. I've pictured myself spending valuable periods of time with Fiona, talking with her, listening to her, playing with her. (Fiona is my 1-year-old niece.) I've seen myself spending time with the rest of my family, both immediate and extended--being there for them, having conversations with them about times past, present, and future, and about things of concern. I've pictured myself traveling to Kansas to visit Jen and Tom, and perhaps to Arizona to get a sense of my grandfather's roots, and to visit Elton, and Uncle Paul and Aunt Mae and family.

With all the difficulties and challenges of raising a family--especially the financial burden--there are too few people with time to spare for others, except perhaps grandparents; but we need young people too, with fresher views of life, to share the moral burden of raising a community. This is especially important for the little ones so in need of attention and good influences.

Perhaps I could be one of those people. Also, and importantly, with few attachments I could afford to take time for travel and self-cultivation. This would be of value not only to myself, but it would increase the value I could bring to encounters with loved ones. There are a few things I would have to give up, to be sure, but perhaps a lot more to be gained?

This is the vision I have. Of specifics, such as when, how, etc., I have yet no idea. And of course it may evolve. But it is a start.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Muuido and Hongdo

In the past month I've been to two beautiful islands, Muuido and Hongdo. Hongdo is the more recent and more impressive, so I'll talk about that more. First, though, a brief word about Muuido. We joined one of the hiking clubs Sandra's a member of for a day of hiking on the Monday after the Seollal holiday, which I mentioned in my previous posting. It was less than a 10-minute ferry ride from the mainland (actually a largish island connected with the mainland by a bridge) to Muuido, and when we arrived we immediately began a 4 or 5-hour hike with plenty of views of the ocean and snowy hillsides all around us. One of the most memorable parts of the hike for me was the lunch we had at the top of one of the hills. As usual, and as everything, it was done communally. People (previously unknown to me) handed me bulgogi (thin-sliced Korean bbq) and soup, and others laid out rice and panchan (side dishes) in the middle. A few people were using backpacking stoves to cook the bulgogi, ramen, etc. So I took the tuna bagel-sandwich I had prepared, along with the kiwi, cut them into pieces and laid them out for everyone. The other memorable event was the meal we shared at a ramshackle-looking restaurant near the harbor, upon our return from the hike. It consisted of oysters, clams, conchs and other shells, which were caught fresh and cleaned; these were then simply tossed on hot charcoal grills built into the center of each table. As the shells heated up the meat inside would cook and expand, forcing the shells to open, sometimes very suddenly. (On a few occasions one of the shells popped open, shooting out a bit of steaming liquid.) We ate the meat straight from the shells, simply dipped in a spicy sauce.

Hongdo took our island explorations to the next level. We left on Saturday afternoon and returned Monday (March 1st, Korean Independence Movement Day). It took 4.5 hours to drive to Mokpo, a coastal city in the far southwest, and then (on Saturday morning) 2.5 hours on a high-powered boat with a capacity of several hundred. (this was no ten-minute ferry ride, but a real seagoing vessel: Hongdo is maybe 150 kilometers from the mainland, going toward China.) We drove down in Sandra's sister's car, a Daewoo equipped with the usual high-speed GPS-radio-TV rolled into one you see in many cars here. In Mokpo we joined a tour group, which is the way sightseeing is usually done here. It was about USD $125 apiece for the round-trip boat ride, 3 meals, and a hotel on Heuksando, an island halfway between Hongdo and Mokpo. As for Hongdo, I think my pictures will do better to convey the stark beauty of the scenery there. But basically we did a short hike, on our own, then met up with the group for a boat tour around the island to check out some of the most impressive ocean rocks I have ever seen. The tour guide was entertaining, and would have been even more so, I am sure, could I have understood the many jokes and anecdotes he was, no doubt, rattling off. After Hongdo we boarded another ocean vessel for Heuksando, where we took a bus tour of that island before finally settling down for the night. That night (Sunday) the weather took a turn for the worse. The wind picked up mightily and by morning it had died down but there were grey skies and a misty rain. The sea had also been stirred, and the boat ride back to the mainland was quite the gut-wrenching journey. Imagine riding on one of those amusement-park pirate ships (the ones that swing back and forth in a huge arc) for two hours straight--only instead of swinging freely, imagine that each time it reaches the bottom of the arc it crashes into a huge wave, and all the passengers lurch to the side of their seats and try not to pay attention to the food channel that the boat crew has unwisely (sadistically?) decided to put up on the large screen in front of us. But we made it back, though it took us a few hours walking around Mokpo's small but worthwhile natural history museum to work up an appetite for lunch. The drive back is hardly worth mentioning, so now you have the whole story! I hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Seollal and Gyeongbok Palace

February 13-15 is a three-day weekend to celebrate Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year. It is a big holiday: almost all Koreans spend one of the days with their closest family, and sometimes visit different sides of the family on different days. Many Koreans also dress in the traditional Korean attire, known as hanbok. I was lucky to have a Korean friend invite me to share the traditional meal with her family. I arrived around 9:00 (today, Sunday) in time to observe Sandra's brother and nephew doing bowing rituals. They had a table at the side of the room set with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other foods, all carefully arranged on small goblet-like serving platforms especially designed for the occasion; and some candles and incense. The men face the setting and perform several kneeling bows and one standing bow. Her nephew performed the same sequence several times, while I only observed her brother do it once. I understand this is in honor of ancestors. Then, they cleared the table, brought it to the middle of the room and set it with plenty of panchan (small plates of food everyone shares, using chopsticks to pick up the food from the dishes) such as kimchi, bean sprouts, spinach, small strips of cooked meat, and fried zucchini. I sat at the table (on the floor, of course) with the brother and nephew while Sandra and brother's wife served the doekkguk, which is like a starchy stew of small rice "dumplings" (not really the right word) and small pieces of meat and veggies, served with a bowl of rice on the side. Doekkguk is the traditional meal eaten on Seollal. The ladies sat down, and the only thing still missing was the baekseju, an alcoholic drink like soju except sweeter and flavored with herbs (and therefore more palatable). The name means something like "hundred years' wine" and is supposed to stretch your life span to as many years. Attempting to observe correct drinking ritual, I followed the toasts of the uncle over the course of the meal and downed several shot-sized glasses. The early hour did not seem to prevent anyone from partaking - except, of course, the teenaged nephew.

A bit after 11, Sandra and I departed for Gyeongbokgung (Gyeongbuk Palace), which is in Seoul, about an hour and 1/2 away on the bus and subway. The architecture of the Palace was the same traditional Korean building style I've observed in Buddhist temples, right down to the color patterns on the wood. The style strikes me as simple yet graceful: the larger features such as the sweeping roofs are eloquent without breaking into ornament, which is reserved for an occasional small detail in the most important buildings. (See the photo of the figures decorating the tile roof.) It was a pretty cold day and also the paths around the buildings were muddy, but we still had an enjoyable time. In one wing of the palace they had some traditional Korean living spaces that were unfurnished but still bright and cozy, with wood floors and sliding panels dividing the rooms; actually the best thing about the rooms was that they had heated floors. (Amazingly, heated floors is a building practice that goes back a long time in Korea. At the back of palace, emerging from a grassy mound was a row of nicely fashioned, large brick chimneys: these provided ventilation for the under-floor fires.) So after a time we wandered down to Insadong, a nearby neighborhood with lots of shops and coffee/tea houses. I bought some cheap but nice paper hangings to cover the ugly walls in my apartment. Following that, we found a spot to enjoy some tea before heading home for the day.

Tomorrow, a rare Monday free from teaching, the plan is to head to a small island not far from Seoul with some of the people from the Korean hiking club. Only this time, the hike will only be four hours (and nowhere near as cold!), and we'll spend most of the day eating and wandering around. Hopefully it will be a relaxing way to start the week. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter hiking in Korea is colder than you think

So I decided on the spur-of-the-moment to join a Korean hiking group for an all-day hike yesterday (Sunday). I was at dinner Saturday night with a few fellow foreign teachers and their Korean friends. One of the Koreans (Sandra) mentioned she was taking a bus that night from Seoul, at 11 pm, to a mountainous area about 4 hours away. She and her hiking group would arrive at their destination at 3:30 am and promptly begin an all-day trek, returning to Seoul Sunday evening. That sounded pretty nuts to me, but I really felt like hiking; I also felt like doing something new and spontaneous. So after refusing to let myself think about the many reasons I shouldn't go, I arrived home from dinner just in time to pack some water, a few granola bars, and my camera -- and don the warmest clothing I own (which I would later find out, wasn't warm enough).
At precisely 3:30 am on Sunday, having slept roughly a half-hour on the bus, I laced up my hiking boots and waited for the Koreans to finish strapping on their gaiters, adjust their sleek day packs, and layer up with hi-tec clothing. I was sort of laughing to myself thinking that they were overdoing it quite a bit. The town where I live, near Seoul, and the nearby mountain (which I had already hiked several times this winter) had been cold, but nothing to justify this kind of gear. It appeared the Koreans were preparing to climb K2, or at least Mt. Rainier. Sandra had also loaned me an extra set of crampons, which I accepted out of courtesy. How little I knew about winter hiking in Korea.
Outside, by the light of our headlamps, we made final adjustments before finding the trailhead. We would need the headlamps for about four hours, as dawn wasn't until seven-thirty. I realized about 10 minutes into the journey that I had seriously underestimated the weather conditions. I hadn't realized that a mere four-hour trip could bring such a change. After all, we weren't even 1,000 feet higher than the altitudes near Sanbon (my city). But here the trail was covered with snow, the wind was howling, and the temperatures quite a bit colder than I had expected. It took me about four hours of hiking before I started getting really cold. I had never before been so cold, for so long. After a while, the snow also started getting really deep. Luckily, the surface was pretty hard because of the cold and our boots didn't sink down too much.
The hike would have been miserable indeed if not for the company. The Koreans were all in good spirits. I came really underprepared: not only did I lack proper clothing, but I only brought a few snacks, thinking that we would stop somewhere for lunch. Without even asking, the Koreans spontaneously offered me food and extra clothing, such as a coat and better gloves. (I look like a marshmallow in the photo because I'm wearing two coats.) One person would hand me a cup of soup from a thermos or some coffee; another would shove some cookies or part of a sandwich into my hands. The only thing I regret is not being able to join in their conversations. Only a few of them spoke some English.
Twelve hours later, I was limping down the road to where the bus was parked waiting for us. With a handful of others I opted to take a shortcut at the end, skipping the hardest ascent. Not surprisingly, my knee started to hurt. For the last few years it has bothered me on long hikes and runs. I was actually surprised it didn't start hurting sooner, but that may have been because of the extra cushion afforded by the snow.
So a day that could have been one of the most miserable of my life turned out to be a most memorable one. I think I'll go again. (Though I might wait 'till spring!)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

home again

It's 2:30 a.m. on January 3rd. I should be in bed: today I traveled from Thailand to Korea all day and I'm exhausted, but I wanted to post photos on Facebook and my blog tonight. Tomorrow I have to make lesson plans for my extra "intensive" winter class (Basically, in January I'll have no life).
So now it just remains for me to say a few words about the remainder of the trip before I crash. Cambodia was amazing, both for the temples which I already mentioned and for other reasons, such as having delicious food - including the most delicious little bananas I've ever tasted.

Maria and I spent the day on December 29th traveling from Cambodia to Ko Chang, Thailand where we had reserved a spot at an inexpensive beach resort. Three days was too short to be there, but it was still fun being there for New Year's, doing some snorkeling and island hopping for a day, and just relaxing by the beach. Everything is so cheap in Thailand compared to Korea and other places. I got a great 1-hour Thai massage for about $7.50! Well, for the moment I have nothing else profound to say. I hope you enjoy my photos!