Sunday, May 25, 2008

Witnessing a Shamin Ritual

Shamanism: The belief that there is a connection and ability to communicate with spirits. A rare practice throughout the world

The day that I went to Namhansanseong, everyone I was with piled back into their two cars after a great day of mild hiking. However, a split decision to make a random right turn back up the hill and park near some statues brought on a once in a lifetime opportunity.

We ended up stumbling across dozens of stone carved statues of all kinds in a small area in the middle of the woods.

Some of them were beautiful:

and some of them were... inappropriate and unexplainable?

There was a tiny driveway that led back up the mountain that was lined with statues of men with various animals representing the Chinese New Year.

As we kept walking up and up we came to a smaller driveway in front of what seemed like a house, where people were banging a drum and looked to be setting up some sort of ceremony, wearing traditional korean hanboks and colorful robes.

My director stopped us all and told us that this could be a Shaman ritual, and that we were lucky to have come across it as it's very rare to actually see one performed live. She, herself had never seen one before. As we're standing in the small road, the group of revelers waved us to come and join them - something I would consider an uncommon honor bestowed amongst foreigners randomly walking through the woods.

In Korea Shamans are primarily women, called Mudangs. Occasionally, although rare, you will see a male shaman or Beksoo Mudang. We fortunately hit the double whammy and saw a Beksoo Mudang perform a walking on knives ritual. After a bit of research apparently this type of ceremony is meant to intimidate evil spirits. Shamans will work themselves into a frenzied trance with music and jumping and dancing in order to feel no pain, or drop any blood. At one point, the beksoo mudang use an extremely sharp razor to cut apples and handed me one during the ceremony. I barely wanted to get near this thing as it was noticeably sharp, and he had just then put it on his tongue. He was doing things that should have left him in excruciating pain, not to mention bleeding profusely.

The ceremony lasted about 10 minutes, all of which I captured on video. It ended with the beksoo mudang putting an entire butchered cow carcass on his back and jumping up and down on the knives. It was impressive and fascinating to say the least.

Shamanism is an interesting religion, if you'd like to call it that. It has no written scriptures anywhere, and it is extremely adaptable. According to an article found in the New York Times, when Korea hit the internet wave, Shamans were the first to jump on the bandwagon to create websites geared towards fortune tellings and events.

Also, one cannot become a Shaman, they must be called. Generally they will go through life normally until one day a grave unexplainable sickness will fall on either them, or someone they love, and once they give in a cure will take place. An interesting thing about Shamanism in Korea is that there are something like 10,000 gods that can be worshiped.

What I find more intriguing than anything else, is the fact that Korea has the largest populations of Christians in Asia (roughly about 25% of the country reportedly is Christian), a thriving Shamanist community, and a large number of practicing Buddhists all surviving and coexisting peacefully. It's endearing...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Namhansanseong or, Gate South of the Han

Namhansanseong. Quite a mouthful, eh?

It has its own subway stop on the Bundang Line, but I never saw it. I had never heard of it before either, but my school director recommended it as a staff outing day. Now, we've only had one other of these to the Suwon Korean Folk Village in the fall, but I accidentally on purpose slept through that. However, I am glad that I did not sleep through this.

Namhansanseong literally means Gate/Fortress South of the Han River. It was a gate that was pretty important from the 1600s when it served a major role in defending a Korean king during an attack from the Manchus until the mid 1700s. It also has a few temples and such scattered throughout the mountain area. The gate eventually was left unattended and crumbled until the mid 1950s when the government decided to rebuild it, as they have rebuilt virtually everything else in this country.

It's a nice walk up a mountain that's not very steep for about an hour. It overlooks the Jamsil area and on a clear day you can probably see all the way into central Seoul, but it's never clear here. The interesting thing was at the top of the mountain, off to the side in the woods was a little community of hikers enjoying vegetables and Makali (Korean Rice Wine). I don't know about you, but after a pretty physical walk/hike booze is really the last thing I want - especially when you still have to go back down.

My head teacher wound up getting drunk, so we had to make sure she was ok to walk back down. It was slow, but she eventually made back into the little mountain town to have a nice Bimbibap lunch. Overall, a nice way to spend a couple of hours outside.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Suwon Fortress - It's There.

About an hour south of Seoul is the decently sized city of Suwon. I believe it to be the capital of the Gyeonggi-Do region, and it is also home to my immigration office. BUT that's not all it has.

Suwon Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site (what that REALLY means or matters, I do not know). Basically its a rather large tourist site, but it is actually a pretty nice walk on a very nice day. The fortress wall has been compared to China's Great Wall (perhaps you've heard of it), and I can assure you it can't be any more UNlike China's Great Wall. The wall goes most of the way around Suwon (I believe it used to go all the way around, but as time has gone it the city has gotten bigger and grown around it. It's roughly 5km (about 3 miles) long. There are a few guard towers at various corners which give you interesting tidbits of history in Korea's uneasy past. It only costs between 1-3,000W to do multiple parts.

Getting there is a bit of an annoyance if you're not directly in Seoul at the start. If you ARE in Seoul - take the subway Line 1 to Suwon Station and then hop in a cab or you could even walk about 20 minutes. Bring something that has Hwaseong written on it in Hangul, because the cab driver did not understand me whatsoever when I tried to say it in Korean. The exchange went something like this:

Me: Hwaseong, Chuseyo? (Fortress Please)
Him: Ehh??
Me: Hwaseong? Paldalmun? (South Gate)
Him: Ehhh?
Me: I give him my Lonely Planet Book...
Him: AHHHHHH HwaSEONG!!! (emphasis on a different syllable).
Me: Ne. (Ugh, Yes.)

He brought us to where we wanted to go, for about 3 bucks, so I can't really complain. Overall - I recommend it if you're looking to get out of Seoul, but not if you're looking for a big change of scenery. It's just a wall in a city.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Teacher's Day - Best Holiday EVER!

As you may or may not be aware - Korea has some random holiday every month. They've actually planned it out this way. Sometimes its fun (Pepero Day, November 11th) and sometimes it's dumb and redundant (White Day - March - Valentine's Day part deux). However, in May they have Children's Day, Parent's Day, and Teacher's day - which are all brilliant.

Children's Day means the kids don't usually have to go to school (which means neither do the teachers). Parents day is a combination of mother's AND father's day which is very convenient. And the gem of them all is Teacher's Day - where all of the kids bring pretty incredible presents for their teachers. I made out like a bandit and so did most at my school. Western friends of mine at other schools didn't get anywhere near the schwag that we got at SLP, and one of them didn't even get so much as a "Happy Teacher's Day" so he wasn't pleased.

I made out pretty well though, don't ya think?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tiger World! No Tigers - Only Waterslides

I've had a busy couple of weeks lately and it's stemming from the realization that I've got roughly 6 months left here in Korea (I've extended my contract from August until Nov/Dec). So I'm now trying to do as much random stuff as I possibly can. One thing that wasn't on my list of things to do but somehow wound up doing anyway was a trip to Korea's biggest indoor waterpark - Tiger World.

Tiger World isn't really that big, but what's oddly fun is the fact that it really is entirely indoors. You walk away after a day of water fun with absolutely no sunburn - which is rather fantastic. It boasts 7 water slides, a lazy river, a children's area, and the best part - a spa including aromatherapy pools, a pool bar, hot spring waterfalls, sauna areas, and a very large hot tub pool with various full body jets.

The main area:

The only outside area:

Tiger World is open all year long and has a daytime and nighttime session. It is a rather large complex that also boasts indoor skiing as well as a golf range. During the day you can do the water park and spa for 38,000W - and if you buy 3 tickets you get 30% off. The best part about this place is that its only been open since 2007 and there weren't any lines anywhere until about 6:30pm. The best slide there is easily the biggest one - a straight shot tube that spits you out into a rather large bowl and spits you down into a deep pool. I highly recommend it...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hong Kong - My Newest Love

As I stated a few posts ago, one of my best friends came to visit me. Korea was never on his list of places to visit, but then again it wasn't on mine either - they just happen to pay me a lot of money. However, he stopped here to visit me before we both headed onto Hong Kong. He had lived there for 6 months a few years ago for school and this of course was my first time.

(Before you get any further - this post will be long and probably not as entertaining as others. You've been warned.)

Hong Kong is one of those magical cities that just blindside you. You of course go and think it's going to be a good time, but you wind up leaving it begrudgingly and figuring out ways to come back. It is a captivating city, and you can feel its energy and that people are there and getting things, important worldly things, done.

You also never forget that you're in a Chinese area, as things are still slightly off... case in point - a street of dried seafood with fresh shark fins on the side of the street:

We got there early Wednesday afternoon, hopped on the excellent Airport Express Train and were in central Hong Kong within 24 minutes.

We checked into the Marriot Courtyard and as we entered our room on the 25th floor and looked out our gigantic floor to ceiling windows we were pretty pleased with ourselves.

We wasted no time, and once we got over the happiness of the room, we took the trolley (yes, amazingly fun trolleys) down to a plaza in central Hong Kong. We walked around there for a bit to see all of the buildings and then subwayed it over to the Kowloon Peninsula to site see.

As we walked around we came to the Peninsula Hotel - an old time British luxury hotel - so we stopped in for a bit of afternoon tea. We took the Star Ferry back to central Hong Kong and took a trip up one of the longest escalators in the world through the mid-levels full of shops and restaurants. Once at the top we headed over to Lai Kwai Fong - the foreigner bar area - and had a beer and some food before heading back to the hotel for the evening to crack open the mini bar and stare out the window (yes, we just sat and stared out the window).

Thursday saw not too much action as there were some meetings to be had, but I did get to see a bit of the Syracuse University program at the City University of Hong Kong. SU is the only American University presence in HK which made me feel pretty good for my alma matter.

Thursday night we did stop on the Kowloon side for a bit to watch the nightly Laser Light Show that HK puts on from their skyline. They play music and each of the buildings light up and its a nice little flair that they add for tourists.

We then took a walk around the lit up area and saw all of the Olympic craziness around. Hong Kong is helping Beijing to host the Equine part of the games this summer. Plus all of China is crazy about it all anyway...

Friday we took a little trip over to Hong Kong Disneyland, and being that I had never before been to a Disney anything it was a really fun afternoon. The highlight for me had to be the Philharmagic Show - which was a 3D theater performance complete with water, smells, wind, and smoke. It was excellent. Also we did the It's a Small World Ride which had only been open for about a week, and the song is forever burned into my brain. The park is very very small though, and took us only about 3 hours to go through the whole thing. It's just hilarious that Disney has a presence in HK.

After Disney we went on one of the craziest bus rides through Lantau Island and wound up on top of a mountain at the Big Stone Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. Truly a site to see, so if you're there - I recommend it.

We of course went out for a bit of drinking with some of my friend's old friends in Lai Kwai Fong and returned home at 5am, only to wake up and check out at 9am. For our last night in Hong Kong, I was surprised with a night at the Mandarin Oriental - one of the world's premier hotels. We had tea in our room on the 19th floor, overlooking the harbor and central Hong Kong that our concierge herself brought to us.

We headed to an excellent Dim Sum lunch in Kowloon with a few Chinese friends and then went to the Tsim Sha Tsui area to pick up our newly made clothing. Hong Kong is an incredible place to go shopping, but what you should definitely do is go and have clothing made. My friend got a suit and some shirts made, while I had some shirts and a skirt made cheaper than you'd ever get at home.

Saturday evening we took a long trip out to the New Territories and had dinner in Tai Po with a British Syracuse Professor who has lived in Hong Kong for 30+ years. The stories he had to tell were fascinating and he took us out to one of the best Thai food dinners I've ever had. He drove us back to the train station and when we returned to our hotel, we headed to the top floor for an evening in the hotel spa - WHICH happened to be ranked Asia's best spa. This was a title that is well deserved because for 60 minutes I was in pure unadulterated bliss. I've seriously never felt that good in my whole life, that I'm sure of.

For our last night in HK we once again sat looking out our window overlooking the harbor with all of the lights before meeting up with the same friends from earlier to have drinks in the hotel rooftop bar. We sat in this classy establishment enjoying martinis and such before calling it a drunken night around 2am.

Room serviced breakfast woke us up at 6:15am. It was a cloudy rainy morning which fit our moods perfectly being that neither of us wanted to go home. I didn't want to take my 3 hour flight to Seoul and my friend definitely did not want to take his 15 hour flight back to New York. Most people would say that life could be worse, but we now know that it could be better...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Happy Birthday Buddha!

Perhaps the biggest holiday in Korea may just be Buddha's Birthday. It's one of the few national holidays and has about a week's worth of events planned. From what I've seen holidays tend to be very family oriented and quiet, but not for Buddha. Buddha's birthday this year was May 11th, but Seoul put on a parade of parades on Sunday May 5 in the Insadong area. The parade lasted about 2.5 hours and it featured every imaginable and unimaginable type of lantern.

Before the parade on Sunday the Cheoggye Stream near City Hall had quite a few lavish lanterns set up that were all lit up at night. Also the temples and palaces around Seoul gave out lanterns to those who walked through their doors. Unfortunately I didn't get one, BUT they don't condense so it'd be hard to take home anyway. The day of the parade there was the Lotus Lantern Festival that took place down one of the main streets near Insadong where people could make their own lantern, watch performances, and eat all types of Korean food.

Basically it was one of the best celebrations I've seen here, and wish that they would go this all out for all of their holidays. Oddly enough, the closest I saw was when the westerners took over and celebrated St. Patrick's Day.

Anyway - enjoy the photo highlights:

Monday, May 05, 2008

A Tower by Any Other Name...

On Sunday we decided to head up Namsan Mountain to go to Seoul Tower. The funny thing about this tower is that its considered one of the top 10 tallest in the world, but its actually a very tiny little thing. What winds up pushing it towards greatness is the fact that it stands atop the center of one of the biggest mountains in the area in the middle of Seoul.

I also think the tower suffers a bit of an identity crisis as it goes by 8,000 names. You'll see it called Seoul Tower, Namsan Tower, and N Seoul Tower. The official website calls it N Seoul Tower, but once you get up there you'll see all three names in various places.

To get to the tower take the subway to Myeondong and leave out exit #3. Walk towards the hotel and then walk about 15 minutes past it up some stairs and then walk to the right towards the cable car. In order to get to this tower you can do one of three things - A) walk up the many many many stairs B) hike up the trails or C) take the cable car right to the top. My friend and I of course being the lazy SOB's that we are, opted for the cable car. It was about an hour wait to take the cable car - but it was also a Sunday afternoon of a 3 day weekend. The cable car is a great little ride, so in essence its worth the wait.

Once on top of the mountain you'll walk up some more stairs and pass a huge stoned enclosure that used to be a smoke signal area to warn Seoul of an emergency or an attack. This thing must have constantly been smoking for as many times as Korea has been invaded throughout its history.

We bought tickets to go up and had to wait about 20 minutes. There are little shops and snack bars everywhere so we got some tea and waited. The tower has two floors - the top floor which as you walk around shows you the customary distances to other cities in the world, and then the second floor which has various places of Seoul on the windows with little histories.
(Long way away from home)
If there's one thing you do when you visit this tower it should be to go to the bathroom. Being that there's absolutely nothing in front of you the whole bathroom is one gigantic window. It's the same in both the men's and women's bathroom:

Overall its an excellent way to become more aware of this sprawling city and a good way to spend an afternoon. We ended up walking down the mountain afterwards and it wound up spitting us out somewhere near Seoul Station. Not what I intended, but it worked out. Get a map or something before you head out.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Unconventional Stay in a Traditional Korean Hanok

One of my best friends flew halfway around the world to come and visit little old me this past week so I thought I'd attempt to do it up a bit. After our tour of the DMZ we headed back to Seoul and stayed at the Tea Guesthouse near Anguk Station and Insadong.

Now, most people when they travel want to find the best hotels possible, but when in Asia why not do things a little differently?

The tea guesthouse was one of the most unique places I've ever stayed. It's down a quiet street and a pagoda filled area. When you walk in, you enter a small courtyard filled with knick knacks and small houses.

We stayed in the double room which had two andols (mattress on the floor), antique looking furniture, heating/ac, and a desk and computer/tv. When you opened up the back door to the room it opened up into a backyard with a small pond and access to the puppy that was running around.
(The double room)

(The pond in the back)
It was a very nice, secluded little haven in the middle of the city, but it felt like it was miles away from everything (which is a good thing). The staff was helpful, they offered an excellent western breakfast in the morning, and there were plenty of brochures and magazines around to help plan a day if need be. It was nice to spend a night in a traditional place that had paper thin walls like you'd see on tv. We both really enjoyed it and it was a come and go as you please kind of place.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The DMZ - A Toursity Kind of Warzone

Ah the DMZ. The De-Militarized Zone. A span of only a few miles between two warring countries. One at the forefront of modernism and the other led by a madman who may or may not have extremely dangerous weapons. In between the two lies this space of farmers and military co-existing in an active war zone state, BUT also runs daily tours and sells knick knacks and tasty treats.

Specially made DMZ rice.

At a first glance, its thought provoking and fascinating and frightening all at the same time. There are two countries that have been so against each other for so long that they actually have to have miles between them to keep each other out. There are people living in South Korea that haven't seen their family members because they're stuck in North Korea and vice versa. They've been at a standstill for years, and the North is still trying to figure out ways to break into Seoul, as is evident with their digging and finding of tunnels underground. The 2nd most recent tunnel, the 3rd tunnel, was found when they were only 52km (about 32 miles) away from Seoul in the 1980s.

Looking at North Korea, this is the border between the two countries.

At any given time you never know what those crazy North Koreans are up to. The DMZ was built as a temporary barrier between the two, but as they continue to build more permanent structures and keep things freshly painted, its very clear that there will be no resolve in the near future.

However, after all of that goes by the wayside in your brain and you realize you're sitting on a United States Organization (USO) Tour Bus, that you paid $44 to get onto with other tourists, that there isn't exactly any imminent danger. They take you to snack shops, rest areas, banquet halls, and gift shops. I bought some souvenirs for my parents. We joked about walking out the door when we were standing in North Korea and seeing what happened. We were also told not to make any communicative gestures towards the North Koreans and we openly talked about how we were gonna get thrown in jail for waiving furiously at them.

The sign as you head into the 3rd tunnel explaining the stupidity of North Koreans

The whole trip for the USO first takes place in Ballinger hall for a debriefing, then onto the Joint Security Area (JSA) to see where the peace talks were held, then to lunch, and then the Dora Observatory, and lastly the 3rd tunnel where they make you put on hard hats and walk down a steep incline to get to the tunnel that's very wet and dark and short. It was a long day, and extremely informative, and we met some cool people on the tour that were mainly just passing through Korea.

South Korean Soldier guarding the door into North Korea

It is most definitely something everyone who lives here should see, if only to see something that is so definitive in history. It really is some of the most beautiful countryside I've seen here, and it is home to a lot of rare wildlife. Once the countries become united (if ever) there are plans already in place to keep it a nature wildlife preserve. Not to mention it has some of the most fertile untouched soil in the world and grows ginseng, rice, and other various important crops. So much so that the farmers who live in the DMZ are there to farm and making an untaxed living of about $80,000. Yes, dollars. It's unbelievable actually.

North Korea

If you're going to take a tour, make sure you take one through the USO and you book it about a month in advance. This is the third time I've tried to book a tour, and the first two were unsuccessful due to the popularity of the tour. All of the information you would need can be found here.