Thursday, October 21, 2010

The DMZ, posted just one month after we went there!

Our first day in Seoul started with a cab ride from our hotel to Itaewon, which is the "foreigner" district of Seoul. Have I mentioned how cheap taxis are here? They start at 3000 won (about $4), which covers the first three kilometres. It’s a twenty minute walk from “downtown” Buan to our apartment, or a $4 cab. I think the next time I get a cab in New Zealand I’m going to think the driver’s joking when they tell me the fare.

A lack of alternatives and my desire to avoid Korea’s attempt at a French bakery lead me to get breakfast from KFC. This had mixed results: awful, awful chicken, but hilarious still-drunk-at-eight-in-the-morning Americans yelling at the staff. They kept demanding to see the manager but he was hiding out the back and refusing to come out. After trying to eat as much of the chicken as I could without actually tasting it, we met up with Dan and Nid and found our tour group.

Our tour guide was the most Americanised Korean I’ve ever met, with his baggy t-shirt, short pants (frowned upon here), and baseball cap. He introduced himself Forrest Gump style: “My name is CK. You can call me CK.” But he wasn’t finished. “It’s not stand for Calvin Klein or these things. It stands for ‘Crazy Korean’. It’s a nickname come from state of Hawaii.” CK’s introduction inspired me to start writing down exactly what Koreans say, rather than a best guess of what they mean. This also goes for responding to questions. For example, when my co-teacher asked “Are you Ms Lee?” - meaning “Do you know Ms Lee?” – I replied “No, my name is Thomas. You know that.” (Ms Lee is Anna’s co-teacher.)

We all brought our passports along like we were supposed to, but this turned out to be a bad call. CK told us they would be checked by a soldier, which sounded cool but never happened. And one member of our group just got waved through after forgetting theirs. This wouldn’t have bothered me except that mine got drenched in the storm later that day in Seoul despite being in the inside pocket of my bag.

After an hour or so we pulled into a big carpark area where we had to change busses. There was a small temple, an old train that had been bombed in the war, and a view of the rail bridge to the North that Nid told us was used in one of the Bond films. There was also a fence where you could tie a ribbon with a message written on it.

None of these messages beat the one I found a few days later written on a tile at Seoul Tower (same thing but with tiles instead of ribbons)…

Do I have to?

There were also a few food places and souvenir shops. And a small amusement park. Called Viking Land.

I have absolutely no idea.

So, ya know, all the normal stuff that a country builds to commemorate one of the saddest parts of its history. After looking around this area we got on the second bus and set off.
On the way, CK told us that the area inside the DMZ is actually prized farmland. So much so that, after sitting empty for some time after the war (don’t mention it), the land on the South side of the DMZ was given to the families of soldiers who had died in the war. The ginseng grown by these farmers is considered the best in the world. Although they’re officially South Korean citizens, the people living inside the DMZ don’t have to pay tax, or do military service.

Next we went to the observatory, which we are told has a great view over the DMZ and into the North Korean countryside and the city of Kaesong, where North Koreans are employed to work in factories by South Korean companies. We didn’t get to see the view though, thanks to the fog. We did, however get to “sit where high ranking generals sit” and watch a film explaining all the things we would be able to see if it had been a clear day.

After some photo ops with South Korean soldiers, landmine warning signs and a picture of the First Division’s mascot we moved on to the Third Tunnel.
Actually the mascot is worth dwelling on for a second, especially when you consider that the First Division is the one which guards the DMZ.

He looks like he should be selling sugary cereal.

Our next stop was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, discovered in 1978. There have been four of these tunnels under the DMZ and into South Korea found so far. North Korea initially denied digging them, and also claimed that this tunnel was a coal mine which went off course. The black patches they spray-painted onto the tunnel walls to support this claim can still be seen, and are about as convincing as they sound. Most recently North Korea has claimed that they should be entitled to the revenue the South receives from operating the tunnel as a tourist attraction, on the basis that they dug it.

We weren’t allowed to take photos of the tunnel, but here’s one I got off wikipedia of the entrance.

After discovering the horrible, low-ceilinged tunnel that the North had built using dynamite and manual labourers (mainly POWs from the South), South Korea built a machine specifically for constructing another tunnel to allow tourists access to the North Korean one. This tunnel slopes down at an angle of 11 degrees (which is much steeper than it sounds) for a kilometre or so to meet the North Korean tunnel.

The Third Infiltration Tunnel itself must have been a horrible place to be: dark, damp, narrow and miserable. We shuffled along it for about 300 metres before reaching a huge door. Through the small window in the door we could see the wall that the South constructed to block the tunnel off. This was an amazing experience: looking through the door into the most reclusive and secretive country on Earth.

Next stop was to see a film about how North and South Korea (who totally weren’t at war or anything) got together and talked about how groovy it would be to built a nature reserve in the middle of Korea. They closed off a 4km wide strip around the 38th parallel and let nature do its thing (of course this had nothing to with the war which is still technically happening and was just a cool idea to help nature). This was the actual line this film took. “Look at this great nature reserve called the DMZ!” – and almost no mention of the war that created it or the hopelessly divided country on either side.

After the “documentary” we went to Dorasan Station, which was built by South Korea as part of a joint North-South plan to build a railway from Seoul to Pyongyang. North Korea pulled out of the deal and now the cleanest train station in the world is just sitting there waiting. The rain was so bad at this stage (it was the main item on the TV news that night), that the bus driver refused to drive the bus all the way to the station, so we had to dash through the storm to get inside. On the wall as we entered was a promising sign: “Not the last station from the South, but the first station to the North.” This hope was rather dashed by the sign below it: “Tracks To Pyongyang”. It doesn’t, after all, say “Trains to Pyongyang.” We got souvenir train tickets from Dorasan to Pyongyang, which CK told us will be good for a free ride if the line ever opens.

Our last stop inside the DMZ was the Reunification Village, which was really just a small grocery store selling North Korean products. We got some beer, which turned out to be awful, and some chocolate proclaiming to be “the only chocolate in the DMZ.” We also discovered that the soju which the previous tenant had left in our fridge was in fact North Korean, when we found some in the store.

The trip back to Seoul was more like a boat ride, the weather was that bad. Once we got there we were delivered to the government ginseng store, which started out educational and turned into a hard sell. Koreans are very proud of their ginseng, which apparently has magical powers. Korean ginseng is better than ginseng from other places because it looks like a person. I really wish I was making this up. The guy selling it had a Britney Spears style headset so his voice was amplified even though there were only about thirty of us. We got to try a sample of the ginseng, which tasted fine but didn’t give any of us superpowers. Well, except the amazing ability to drop our jaws when we heard the price: $190 U.S. for a small box! I wouldn’t pay that even if it actually did the things they said it did.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gimje Horizon Festival

Last weekend we went to the Gimje Jipyeongseon (Horizon) Festival for the day and it was way more fun than expected. There's a festival in Korea every weekend it seems - sometimes more than one. Next weekend we're going to try and fit in a fireworks festival in Busan and the bibimbap festival in Jeonju. But that's not what I'm writing about today. The Horizon festival celebrates the rice harvest and the natural beauty of Gimje.

Gimje's about 25 minutes away from Buan by bus, but the journey can take as little as 15 minutes depending on how bat-shit crazy your driver is. Here, Tom worries about what degree of crazy our bus driver will be. Unfortunately we got a rare slow bus driver on this day and the trip took 35 minutes! Outrageous.

The first thing we saw was a traditional Korean dance, called a Samulnori or Nongak (Farmer's Dance). I like the awesome pom-poms the dancers wear on their hats. While we were watching the show, Lauren and I were photographed by a few of the locals. Being Western in Korea is not unlike being a celebrity, everywhere I go I have people running up to me to say hi and sometimes take a picture. I don't know how I'll cope without it when I go home.

Wandering around the festival were a number of people who were dressed in hanbok and painted to match. This guy was hilarious, but I like this picture because of the girl in the foreground.

All around the festival were farmyard scenes, in random places. It seems that along with 'harvest,' 'awesome hats' was also a theme.

Dominating the centre of the festival were these immense dragon sculptures, made from bamboo. I wish we'd stayed at the festival into the evening, as apparently they were lit up at night and looked even more impressive.

The children in this pit-thing were catching fish. We never established why but we were hypnotised and spent a good half hour watching the kids scramble about and yell at each other.

There was also a contest to make the world's longest Tteok (rice cake). The tteok looped around the table a few times and was insanely long. If you have a close look at the picture of the two dragon sculptures (a few photos up) you can see the line of tables in the background which stretched for almost half a kilometre.

Bill Clinton, Jackie Chan and Barack Obama were all picking rice (and wearing awesome hats!)

Tom and I both fed cows, but we skipped on milking a cow....

... but there was a huge line of people who wanted to give it a go. The cow was not happy after 'having a bunch of people pull on her tits all day' (not my quote) and she kept hitting people in the face with her tail. I am heartless because I couldn't stop giggling.

Possibly the best part of the festival was catching grasshoppers. It was an activity meant for kids, but we took advantage of our otherness and grabbed nets and cages and jumped, squirmed and screamed for almost an hour. It was so much fun!
Inside this container are 3 grasshoppers, I swear.
 Finally, we checked out the traditional food stalls. I liked this huge pile of crabs:

The festival was pretty cool, and judging by the 6 kilometres of cars we passed on the way out, it was a hit as well.

A collection of unbloggable weirdness

To make up for the lack of posting I've put up a bunch of short entries and here's a collection of Korean weirdness that speaks for itself (for the most part).

Mischa Barton hawking ... something .... in Gimje
Pig Pegs, Gwangju
Bicycle lamp-post. I've seen a dragonfly one too.
Jesus Model Academy, Gwangju

This dog was wearing a dress, a nappy and booties. Haha, that reads like the dog chose the outfit that morning.
Swastika - these are used to denote a Buddhist temple in Korea
And finally.... what's this?

Why, that's Tom suited up on International Suit Up Day.

Lookin' flash.


It's well and truly autumn here (I should say 'fall', Koreans look at me like I'm a freak when I say 'autumn') and there are flowers lining the roadsides. They're a type of aster called 'Cosmos bipinnatus' or 'co-su-mo-su' if pronounced with a Korean accent.

My co-teacher told me that Cosmos flowers are considered dangerous - because they're on the side of the road, some children have been injured while picking them. The bushes are big enough to hide in (taller than me) and Korean roads tend to be fairly narrow - so children pick the flowers, run out on the the road and.... too much information?! On that cheery note, the flowers are beautiful and my photographs don't do them justice.


Every time I enter my classroom I check what's been written on the board. Here's a few of the recent editions:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Byeonsan Beach, Jeollabukdo

The weather here is getting rapidly cooler, but while it was still hot we paid a visit to one of the beaches just outside of Buan. Byeonsan is one of Jeollabukdo's most popular beaches and it's about half an hour away from Buan by bus. After several weeks of dying in the heat it seemed like a damned good idea to take advantage of the buses and head to the beach for the day.

However, catching a bus was the most difficult part of getting there (and back) - we can barely read Korean and often the timetables just don't make sense. The three of us - Lauren, Tom and I - were hovering around the bus shelter looking confused when we were approached by a Korean man who spoke English and was taking the same trip! He told us that he'd lived in Australia for a year and then in New Zealand for a few months, and he also showed us how to pay the fare and where to disembark. He was pretty awesome.

The beach is lined with pine trees and a few shops, and under the trees there are a few wooden benches and tarpaulins to keep out the sun. Korean women are crazy about avoiding getting sunburnt - on sunny days it's not uncommon to see umbrellas up and faces covered. It was a gorgeous cloudless day and the beach framed by tree-covered mountains was absolutely stunning!

The beach is 'open' from early July to mid-August, and during this time the 2km stretch of white sand has over a million visitors, which is just insane. I thieved this picture from the internet which shows how ridiculously busy Byeonsan can get:

We went in early September and although it was still stinking hot, the beach was practically deserted and we were the only people who ventured into the water for a swim. It seemed strange to me as I'm used to milking summer for all it's worth - beginning with that first freezing swim in October when the sun is warm but the water is like an ice bath, and then reluctantly retiring my togs in March. It was kinda great to have the place almost to ourselves.

I think the three of us caused a bit of a stir getting changed. There's some showers and a few changing rooms but they are probably only open when the beach is in full swing, so we stripped down to our togs in front of the few Koreans wandering around and jumped in. It was absolute bliss! Summer's not really summer for me if I can't just get in the ocean for a bit and float around. 

The water is fairly shallow and reminded me of 90 mile beach - you need to head out a good 50 metres before it starts to get deep. There were fish everywhere, from tiny schools that circled around us to bigger fish that jumped out of the water and scared the crap out of us. The water was a murky brown and when we got out we felt strangely oily and our towels turned green from whatever the hell we were floating around in. Any grossness was a small price to pay for just being at a beach, during summertime, swimming and talking. 

The three of us spent a good hour bobbing around in the waves and discussing our experiences in Korea so far. Lauren told us about the weirdest questions she'd been asked in her first week - 'Why is your head so small and your body so big?' and 'Why are your eyes so googly?' She also told us about a teacher in Gimje whose name is innocuous in English - George - but incredibly offensive in Korean, which explained his students' shocked expressions and reluctant greetings during his first week. I think I spent most of the time just saying 'oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!' over and over again. After several weeks of clinging to the air conditioner in the apartment and breaking into a sweat whilst typing, having a swim was heaven on earth. 

After we were well and truly pruned up we got out and headed home, via the most disgusting public toilets in South Korea. Lauren described them as worse than the Big Day Out. Getting a bus back to Buan was a bit of a challenge as there wasn't an obvious bus stop so we jumped and waved until someone pulled over. Aside from one ajumma and the driver, we were the only ones on the return journey. It was a damn good day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Classroom - Buan Elementary School

We've been back from Seoul about a week and we've FINALLY got the net at home. This has coincided with the tragic death of Tom's laptop meaning I lord over the internet, muahaha. The internet here is unlimited and super speedy, and for 36,000 won per month it's not too expensive either. I have more things to watch online than there are hours in the day.

I still need to organise my thoughts about Seoul so here's a few pictures of my classroom. I spend 4 out of 5 days here - tomorrow I'm teaching 4 hours of 6th grade and then I'll be tutoring some of the teachers.

This is a tiny view of the outside - the school has around 1000 students and it's huge! Four stories, two main buildings and a soccer turf out the back. The schools here are mostly brick and seem pretty intimidating when you're used to pre-fabs and two stories at most. I teach at 3 different schools and this is the largest - the other two have 12 and 23 students respectively, but they're still huge. I have to remind myself that this is considered rural in Korea.They put Glenbervie Primary to shame.

That's my co-teacher's desk and the board - including a huge, touch-screen plasma which is the focal point of most of our lessons. It wasn't working last week and lessons were chaotic.

More often than not there's something offensive written on that puzzle board. So far: 'sex,' 'fuck,' and 'sun of beach' have made the cut. My students are charming, bless 'em.

The blue screen in the corner of the classroom - note the camera at the top left.
One nation under CCTV!

Not pictured - to the right of this image is a webcam so I might get some of you to Skype my classes, and a row of PC's where my 'desk' is located.