South Korea

Busan to Yung-gu

My cousin is currently serving in the military. He wasn’t able to get vacation so we didn’t think it would be possible to see him. On Friday my third aunt called and said she had figured out a way to visit my cousin, but we would have to wake up early. My mom and I were game since we had already travelled so far what’s a a little less sleep to see family.

I wasn’t able to sleep a wink since we had to wake up so early.

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4:00 a.m. Catch a taxi to Busan train station

5:00 a.m. KTX train from Busan Station to Seoul Station

7:50 a.m. Arrive at Seoul train station, catch a taxi to East Seoul Bus Terminal

9:00 a.m. ~ I stopped paying attention to the time but I think sometime before 9 we caught a bus to Yang-gu

11:00 a.m. ~ I think we arrived in Yang-gu just before 11. We took a taxi to the military base where my cousin is currently serving.

My dad started to get worked up again where we were going. His memories of serving in the military were flooding back. He peppered the taxi driver with questions about his old base wondering how far away it was. He tried to ask my other cousins questions about his unit but she didn’t have any answers. You would think my dad was still on active duty.

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11:45 a.m. Reunion with cousin. We headed to a restaurant nearby and have Korean BBQ. Everyone was excited to see my cousin and he was excited to see us. He had called the day before wondering if we were visiting yesterday. And then he called again this morning while we were making our way over to him.

Our entourage was 8 people: Myself and my parents from the US, my aunt from the US, my uncle & aunt from Canada, and my cousin’s mom & sister.

After lunch we spent the remaining hours outside talking and more eating.

4:45 p.m. My cousin needed to return by 5 so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. We got back to the bus terminal just after 5 so we were able to switch to the 5:20 p.m. bus.

7:00 p.m. Unknown location, the driver stopped and let people off and then told everyone to use the restroom now because he didn’t have any idea on when we would get back to Seoul. Without traffic it should have only been an hour but traffic was bad. We had already been in some traffic. I didn’t need his words and then regretted for the next three hours.

10:20 p.m. We finally arrived at East Seoul Bus Terminal. We had already cancelled our train tickets to get a refund afraid we wouldn’t make it. It was still another 40 minute cab ride to Seoul station. We decided to take the bus from Gangnam instead. It was allow us time to have dinner at the terminal.

11:00 p.m. Arrive at Gangnam Bus Terminal, have dinner. We had a big lunch but we hadn’t eaten for over 8 hours. Everyone was hungry.

Midnight We boarded the bus. Since this was a four hour trip the bus was nicer and the seats reclined with leg rests, imagine a bus full of lazy boys.

4 a.m. Everyone passed out for four hours and next thing you know we are in Busan! It worked out we missed the train, even though it’s an hour faster the bus has more room and was more comfortable.

That was an epic day of traveling. Tomorrow I’ll be headed back to Seoul by plane to finally head home! So now I have traveled by plane, train and bus to Seoul. Crazy.

 

Visiting my uncle

I met my uncle and his family for the first time five years ago when I visited Korea. I remember he was tall and wore thick glasses. He talked loudly like my mom and was quite the chatterbox also like my mom. He is the youngest of five with four older sisters. Two years ago he passed away suddenly. My mom and her two sisters that did not live in Korea were not able to attend the funeral. He left behind a wife and two children. One of my reasons for visiting Korea this time was to see my uncle’s family. I worried we would lose contact with them.

This morning we waited in the hotel lobby and my uncle’s wife and daughter walked in. My uncle’s wife had a big smile on her face. I was shocked how grown up my uncle’s daughter looked. I’m still wearing the same t-shirt and jeans outfit I’ve been wearing for the past two months and my cousin looked like a fashionable South Korea college girl and did I mention she’s taller than, and she was taller than me five years ago too. My mom and my uncle’s wife had a long embrace. The words my mom failed to say but tried to express with her body, “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. You still have me.”

We hailed two taxis to take to us to our uncle’s memorial. I’m not sure what it’s called but it’s not a cemetery. There’s a building and I’m not sure if it’s his body or ashes. We went to the room where whatever part of him remains.

It’s not supposed to be this way. The older sisters are not supposed to visit their dead brother’s memorial. He was only 55 when he passed. His oldest sister is pushing 80 and still works once a week and doesn’t need reading glasses. The minute we stepped into the elevator the tears started. After visiting his body we went over to an area where they give you 15 minutes to pay respects the traditional Korean way.

In Jeju we had visited the graves of my grandparents and other relatives and not once did anyone cry. It made me sad to watch his daughter perfectly execute the ritual. She’s too young to know, she should be stumbling through it the same way I stumbled through it my first time in college when I attended my grandfather’s funeral.

In the room there’s a electronic board with my uncle’s photo and information. It lists his wife and two children and a short message.

I think it reads:

Father, please rest comfortably.
We all love you so much.

Gapo, Masan, Busan

Today we hired a taxi driver to take us to my father’s hometown. We left the hotel in Busan just before 9 a.m. And headed to Gapo.

The last time my father was in Gapo was over 50 years ago, half a century! I had showed him Gapo a few days earlier on Google Maps and he was fascinated by how much has changed. He went back and forth on deciding whether or not to go. He had already heard from his older brother his childhood home was long gone and the neighborhood had changed significantly. Just yesterday my dad finally made up his mind that he wanted to go and see it for himself.

On the way to Gapo we stopped at a rest stop to get breakfast. If I’m in America I usually assume it’s McDonalds or some other fast food restaurant. In Korea it’s all Korean food. I had kimbap and some magic rotti bun which tasted like a sweet bun with butter inside and my parents both had udon.

It took about 90 minutes including the rest stop and traffic to get to Gapo. We turned into a side street and my dad asked if he could stop the car for a minute. That’s the point when we lost my dad. My mom asked if we should get out too and he quickly mumbled sure. We hopped out after my dad and he quickly disappeared up a hill. We had stopped in front of an apartment building that sits on the land his house to stand.

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The story goes when my grandparents left Gapo they sold the house to a sister who eventually sold it to a church. My dad was shocked. He quickly ran up the hill that sits behind what used to be his house up towards the church that was there over 50 years ago and still stands today. We followed him up the hill to the church. We found him standing by the church still wearing an expression of shock. He said this is where I used to play. “We didn’t have toys at home so I came here because they had toys.”

I think about my childhood and how I had all the toys I could ever want. My parents bought my brother every video game system and computer he wanted.

My dad asked me to take a couple photos of him in front of the church. We headed back down and snapped a couple more photos in front of the apartment building.

We hopped back into the cab and drove over to his old elementary school. We ran into a teacher and my dad chatted with him for a bit. I snapped a few more photos and then he disappeared into the school. It’s exam day today so they asked us to be quiet even though we could hear the shrill voices of children shouting and laughing. My dad saw a list of the principals and found his principal! There were a couple yearbooks in the glass case but they only went as far back as 1968.

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Next we went somewhere, not really sure where. They’re doing massive construction in Gapo. We walked down from my fathers house and when he was a child it led to the water now it leads to a new road being built. Multiple apartment buildings will be built and the elementary school will be torn down and a larger school will be rebuilt further away.

We stopped to have tea at a coffee/pasta house… It’s a Korean thing. The restaurant sat on a hill overlooking the dock used by fishing boats.

The next stop on memory lane was visiting my father’s old high school. This was a bit further away as it’s in another district. We arrived at the school and the guard let us simply by saying we’re visiting from America.

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Again my father ran out of the car and circled the school to find his old classroom. And again he asked me to snap more photos. He went inside and found a teacher and started chatting with her.

I went around back to the front and could see the baseball team setting up the field.

We got back into the car and headed back to Busan to Jagalchi Fish Market to have a sashimi lunch. We picked out the fish on the first floor and then went to the second floor to the dining area. They sliced up our fish for sashimi and also made us the spicy fish stew. We ate our fill but could not finish the sashimi.

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Next we headed to the shops nearby to do some shopping. I saw a sweet sticky rice cake snack I liked and passed on the first vendor but decided to get one when I saw the second vendor. In Busan they added sunflower seeds, I thought that was brilliant! I told myself I needed to cut back on this sweet treat but it’s so delicious!

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My parents bought some food they wanted to bring back to America, dried anchovies and Korea seaweed then we headed to Haeundae, Korea’s most famous beach.

My first introduction to Haeundae was when I watched a movie with Haeundae as the title. In the movie a huge tsunami hit and destroyed the city, similar to the one that hit Japan a few years ago. Haeundae is a beach, not that large but it’s where all of Korea goes. There are lots of high rises, five star hotels, luxury condos etc in the area. The area has a ritzy feel to it. My mom likes to always tell him my parents honeymooned at the Westin Chosun. When looking for hotels in Busan she asked if I could find a room there but then she told me the budget was $150 so I said not likely. Haha.

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In two days I’m headed back to Seoul to see my cousin who’s currently serving in the military.

South Korea requires all males between 18-35 years of age serve 21 months.

He had tried to request vacation for our visit but was unsuccessful. We originally did not plan to see him but my aunts worked out a plan and we will see him on Sunday. It’s a 4 hour train to Seoul then a 2 hour bus to where he is. We are not staying the night so we will make the same trip back. We are planning to leave at 5am and get back around 2am… Then a little over 24 hours later we will head back to Seoul by plane and fly back to America.

It’s official we are the worst at travel planning.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

Incheon Airport is the gateway for almost all international flights to Korea and it’s 27 kilometers or around 17 miles from the city.

Gimpo Airport is the smaller domestic airport closer to Seoul.

It seems to be the thing for airports in Asia to have a domestic airport with few international flights closer to the city and a larger international airport located in another location further away from the city. This does not make it confusing or difficult when trying to book a connecting some six flight in country.

When I agreed to meet my parents in Korea they had already booked their flights from NY to Incheon, Gimpo to Jeju and their return flight to NY was from Busan to Incheon to NY. I booked a ticket Melbourne to Tokyo to Incheon and then an Incheon to LA flight with miles. I wasn’t able to fly to Jeju with miles and it cost too much to pay for a flight from Tokyo to Jeju, so I needed to purchase a ticket to Jeju from Gimpo.

To add another complication I wanted to spend time in Seoul and my parents wanted to come with but since their tickets are booked from Busan to NY we needed to go to Seoul in the middle then fly down and then fly back up.

What was supposed to be a relaxing trip has turned into the usual crazy.

October 10
Fly from Tokyo ~> Hiroshima ~> Incheon
Bus from Incheon ~> Gimpo
Fly from Gimpo ~> Jeju

October 20
Fly from Jeju ~> Busan
Train from Busan ~> Daegu

October 21
Train from Daegu ~> Seoul

October 23
Fly from Gimpo to Busan

****Update October 24****

October 26
Train from Busan to Seoul
Bus from Seoul to ?
Return Bus to Seoul
Return Train from Seoul to Busan

****Update October 24****

October 28
Fly from Busan to Gimpo
Bus from Gimpo to Incheon
Fly from Incheon to LA

After I get back to LA I wish I could say I won’t be flying for the rest of the year but the holidays are around the corner and I don’t do sitting still.

Seoul

I love this place. I visited for the first time 5 years ago and I loved it then. Most places I visit I don’t ever expect to go back but not Korea. I still have family in Korea and these are my people even if they don’t always recognize me to be one of their own. The question isn’t will you visit Seoul again, instead it’s when will you visit next, easy 2018!

Food

Korean food is delicious in Korea and it’s always available, obviously. But having spent lots of time outside Korea where it’s not always available or not good when it is this place is like heaven.

Shopping

You can go shopping anywhere in Korea. They have shops inside subway stations.

Street Food

No food trucks here, but you can find food carts all over the city. I’ve had more than enough of my fill of 혹떡.

The city that never sleeps

I haven’t figured out what time Seoul goes to bed because something’s always open.

Hiking Mt. Halla

Elevation: 1950 meters (6400 feet)
Location: Jeju Island, South Korea
Claim to fame: South Korea’s highest mountain

Mt. Halla or Hallasan as it’s known in Korean sits almost dead center on Jeju island and can be from anywhere on the island as long as the clouds are not covering it. South Koreans will travel from all parts of the country for a weekend trip to hike Hallasan.

Hiking is popular amongst South Koreans. So much so hiking clothing is frequently worn even when not hiking. Similar to how wearing yoga pants outside of yoga has become commonplace in the US.

My cousins having never hiked Hallasan before agreed to take me since I was visiting and it’s a must. They live less than an hour away but had never hiked Hallasan before.

A hike to Hallasan requires some advance planning. There are currently two paths that lead to the summit, Gwaneumsa Trail (관음사) – 8.7 km and Seongpanak Trail (성판악) – 9.6 km. For all trails they you need to make it past a designated point by a designated time in order to make a push to the summit or else you will not be allowed to advance.

We hiked Seongpanak Trail (성판악) and needed to make it past the halfway point by 12:30pm. We started hiking at 6:50am which gave us plenty of time. The time changes depending on the season and also the trail. By 2pm everyone must leave the summit.

We woke up at 5:30am had a quick breakfast and headed out. We stopped by a kimbap shop to pick up lunch for everyone. I usually pack a pb&j sandwich for my hikes so this was different for me. In addition we each had a cup ramen to go along with our kimbap. We arrived at the car park for Seongpanak Trail (성판악) and it was packed. It’s not a very large parking lot. We were able to find street parking close by. Already the area was swarming with people. Because of the cutoff times I think most people try to start early.

The weather was supposed to be nice so the trail was packed. Hiking culture is a but different here. Usually everyone’s a quick hello as you pass by or if someone ahead is moving slow they will let the people behind them pass. This doesn’t seem to be the case here. You will find people with trekking poles taking up the entire path. I thought about trying a Korea version of “on your left,” but wasn’t sure if it would translate well. Instead I would wait for an opportunity to cut off the person in front of me and forge ahead.

The first third of the trail is long but the elevation gain is minimal. The first main rest area or shelter has an indoor area and restrooms. The second rest area or shelter has the same and also sells ramen. We stopped here for lunch. After lunch we made the push to the summit, it’s estimated to take about 90 minutes, we were able to do it in 60 minutes. The summit is crowded. There are people everywhere. There’s a stone with Hallasan engraved on it and there’s a line to take photos. This is Asia, photo opportunities are never missed and everyone had a selfie stick.

While hiking up there a lots of people struggling and in true Korean fashion they are drinking makkoli, soju or beer. Not sure if they thought to pack any water….

The weather couldn’t have been any better. The sky was blue and the clouds were off to the south. We snapped a couple photos and ate some snacks trying to soak it all in. My cousin was excited to finally have hiked Hallasan and was uploading photos to Kakao. We decided to leave when we saw the clouds rolling in. We didn’t expect rain but did expect it to get colder so we headed down. The trip down ended up taking just as long going up. The path is rocky and a but tricker to manage on the way down. We stopped at the rest stop again for a ramen break. I took a pass but I was pretty hungry at that point.

We returned to the trailhead around 3pm or so.

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Day 43: Jeju Island

When I left LA 44 days ago I thought I would return on October 16 because that was the last day the US Postal Service would hold my mail until they returned everything to sender. I was planning to visit Korea for a few days to see my parents and extended family but after much pleading from my mother I changed my ticket to stay an extra three weeks! I didn’t even think I would make it to Korea but once I decided to extend my trip it became, “what’s a few more days?”

I added Tokyo into the mix by way of an extended layover. While I was in New Zealand falling love with the country I was less interested in spending more time in Australia so when I saw flights to Seoul were connecting through Tokyo I decided to spend a few days in Tokyo since I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. Of course as it worked out I wished I had spent more time in Australia and visited the Gold Coast, but I guess that will have to be another trip. I did enjoy my time in Tokyo loved the food! I’m definitely planning to do a 2-3 week Japan tour and I think it helped that I got a crash course.

So back to Jeju…

I’ve seemed to have fallen into a blogging hole ever since I landed here. I’ve mostly been spending time with family in between touring every single thing there is to see on Jeju island. After spending a week driving around New Zealand’s South Island it’s hard to find anything that compare to it’s natural beauty.

Growing up my mom always used to tell me she grew up on Jeju island, Korea’s very own Hawaii. When I asked if I could visit she said she couldn’t take me to her hometown because it was too rural and I wouldn’t like it. (My dad’s side of the family had already all
moved to America.)

I visited Jeju once about 5 years ago when I was moving back to the US after living in Beijing for 2.5 years. Seoul was only a one hour flight but I still had never visited! I had visited Thailand multiple times but never once had I visited Korea! I asked my mom to come to Korea so I could finally visit her hometown. We spent a few days in Jeju, Busan and Seoul.

I’ve been in Jeju for 8 days now. This is not the Jeju my mom grew up in. As the rest of the country has modernized so has Jeju. But Jeju has it’s particulars that make it different from the mainland.

Dialect

Jeju has a unique dialect all it’s own. I’m not sure what to call it but when I hear it it sounds like gibberish to me. It’s something only the locals speak and understand.

Burial Plots

I’m not sure what to call this one, but basically back in the day since Jeju was mostly farmland when someone was buried a large mound was built and and then a stone rock wall surrounded it. I’m not sure the reasoning but you will see these burial plots scattered all
over Jeju. You will be at a stoplight and over to your right you will see a burial mound. My grandparents were both buried that way but in a cemetery. I’m guessing Jeju was becoming more developed and they realized they needed to set aside an area for these burial plots.

Korean Dramas

I think every Korean drama I have ever seen always find an excuse to visit Jeju. One of the first things my mom said when we arrived in Jeju, “hey can we go to such and such place because I saw it in a Korean drama.” You can take yours here that focus on locations used in Korean dramas. Also when you visit a location that was filmed there will be a sign with a photo showing which drama was filmed at that location.

Museums

Jeju has a lot of museums. Some, most of them I find to be completely random and not worth spending money on. There’s a museum nearby for Teddy Bears. This is a not a museum for kids but lots of adults go and it’s extra popular because a Korean drama was filmed here.

Beneath the over commercialization of Jeju there is still natural beauty to be found.

Outside of the main tourist spots Jeju has over 300 craters many which can be hiked. They’re not very high and can easily be hiked in an hour similar to Runyon Canyon in LA. All the Koreans I saw on the trails were decked out in hiking gear.