Friday, November 26, 2010

A Little Bit of Culture

The main purpose of our trip to Jeonju was to have a 'Korean Cultural Experience,' whatever the hell that means. The Buan Office of Education organised an overnight trip to the Jeonju Hanok Village for all of Buan's Guest English Teachers and their Korean co-teachers.

Part of the 'Cultural Experience' meant staying in a Hanok, a traditional Korean house. This was our first experience sleeping on the floor, Korean-style, although our 'Western' bed is fairly similar in terms of firmness. Tom and I got special treatment - a hanok of our own, which was nicer than our apartment.

The weekend was full of activities, but first we got to dress up in Hanbok and prance around for a bit. I am too fat for Korean clothing but Tom looked pretty dapper.

Steph Face, Hanbok Style
My favourite part of the weekend was making kimchi. It's Gimjang season here - the time to make kimchi before the long, cold, depressing (I'm really not looking forward to it...) winter. There was a huge pile of salted cabbage and we donned some plastic gloves and coated it with spicy red pepper sauce.

We got to eat the fruits of our labour for dinner that night, but we certainly didn't eat all of the kimchi we'd made - a pretty sweet deal for the proprietors. I like fresh kimchi but my coteacher says that most Koreans enjoy the older, more sour stuff.

The next morning we went on a tour of the village and then we got to try our hand at making rice cake and bibimbap. 

The most interesting part of the tour for me was the paper making. Below are some short videos I took - one of the pulp being pressed, the second shows the 'toasting' of the new sheets of paper.

To make the rice cake, freshly cooked sticky rice was put into a huge stone mortar and we used a heavy wooden mallet to pound the rice into submission. Personally, I thought about my sixth graders as I slammed that hammer down.

My coteacher, thinking about the sixth graders too, no doubt.
The bibimbap-making was a far more delicate procedure. Jeonju Bibimbap is the best around as the dish originates from here. A very composed Korean woman in Hanbok showed us how to place the varied ingredients in a circle on top of the rice - the colours aligning in a perfect harmony of yin and yang. The bibimbap was topped with a raw egg, and a ball of raw beef mixed with gochugang. The end result was beautiful.

However, ours looked nothing like that, and we cooked the beef and the eggs. It tasted amazing, nonetheless.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


We went to the movies this weekend, for the first time since we've been here. In Jeonju there's a 'Cinema' district, where about 6 theatres are clumped together. The films are in English with Korean subtitles (whew!) and a steal at 7000 won per ticket (about $8).

It took a really long time to interpret the movie titles:
Cartoon thieved from the excellent
This might be a 'small things amuse small minds' thing, but I really liked the cup lids. We got a huge amount of Fanta for 2500 won ($2.80) and the lid had two indents for straws.

This seemed way more interesting when I took the picture on Saturday.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

We're All Going To Hell Tomorrow

Today we went to Jeonju "Zoo". I put that in quotation marks because it's really more like a cruel and unusual prison for animals. The animals have almost no space, many had no water and almost none had anywhere they could sit that was away from people. Unsurprisingly, many of them have gone completely batshit insane as a result. There was a Himalayan wolf in an enclosure about the size of a double garage with a concrete floor, running around in circles. We saw it not long after we went into the zoo and again a couple of hours later as we were leaving and it was still going.

It's also okay to feed the animals. There were vendors selling big bags of rice wafer things for that purpose. There was a mandrill that had become an expert at catching food thrown to it by people. Maybe that's okay when it's bananas and mandarins, but it seems risky at best to leave these animals' diets up to the whim of the general public.

There were huge brown bears with sad, dead eyes in tiny cages with concrete floors. There were dogs in tiny round pens maybe two metres in diameter. There was a puppy in a room by itself separated from the public by a glass partition, stared at by people all day but never getting to play. The elephants had no water to drink, let alone bathe in. The sheep had no grass. They're sheep. They eat grass, they live on grass, their whole world is grass. There was some growing within a few metres of their pen, but they were just walking around on dry dirt. We went and picked some grass and fed it to them and they went crazy for it.

One of the bears. We didn't get too many pictures, we were too busy being sad.

The zoo could be made heaps better with almost no work at all, starting by moving the sheep closer to the grass. There were huge open spaces in between the cages that didn't seem to do anything. There was a picnic area the size of three football fields with about ten people standing around on it. There were big garden areas with no particularly interesting plants in them. All these areas need is a fence and they would make decent enclosures for some of the animals. If money's the problem then maybe they need to start charging more than 1300 won (about two bucks). The Garden of Morning Calm was amazing, but at the end of the day it's a garden and it cost 8000 won.

To be fair there were a few animals that seemed to be reasonably well cared for, like this zebra. But they were a tiny minority and their conditions were far from ideal.

Most depressing of all (though it faced some stiff competition) was a camel that looked so sick and so skinny that it might die at any moment and I don't think anyone would notice. Certainly no-one would care. You could see the outline of the bones in its legs and what it fur it had left was all matted and gross. We bought two packs of the rice wafer things and fed them to the camel, who devoured all of them.

There is a belief in Korea that animals don't have feelings, but anyone who saw the looks in the eyes of these animals - or as Anna put it, anyone who has ever owned a dog - knows better. It is common for dogs here to be tied up on short leads their entire lives. At the Hanok village yesterday we even saw a kitten on a chain. We thought it would be frightened but it was so happy to get some attention that it jumped on my lap when I bent down to pat it.

You can just make out the chain next to my right wrist.

There are many things that I struggle with in this country that I put down to cultural difference. In the time that I'm here I hope to learn to understand these differences and why Korean people are the way they are. But I never want to understand how they can treat animals this way.

Don't support this cruel and barbaric abuse of animals. Please don't visit Jeonju zoo.

Photos from The Garden of Morning Calm

The photos I wasn't able to include in my last post due to technical difficulties.

The Bonsai Garden

Autumn Leaves

People building rock towers

The view from the top of the hill

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me!

For my birthday last week Anna organised a mystery weekend away. I spent the week doing my best not to find out where we were going, even averting my gaze from the sign on the bus as we boarded after school on Friday. It's been getting dark early here and this only helped the mystery - I barely know where I am in Korea in the daytime. It was so unfamiliar that for a while I was pretty sure we were going to Daegu, since we havn't been there yet. My hopes of remaining ignorant were dashed however, when the bus rolled past a huge billboard that said 'Hi Seoul'. This is a promotional campaign I've seen before, the purpose of which seems to be to market Seoul to people who are already there. Oh well, I was going to find out sooner or later. And I was excited to be back in Seoul - we've been before but there's so much to do that we missed out on a lot of it.

We stayed in Anguk, near the middle of town. We looked around a few love motels until we found this one

Anna had seen it online and would've booked it if the site hadn't all been in Korean. We've learnt to inspect the rooms at love motels before deciding to stay (this is common practice here) and we were glad we did. The room was clean and nice enough but it was only slightly bigger than the (regular size) bed that was inside it. For sixty thousand won? No thank you. Would've been a bargain back home (about $75) but not here. We've stayed in better rooms than that for 35,000. We looked at a few more places that were either too small, too expensive, or full, and eventually found the Ritz Motel: good price, good room, and a computer. The computer turned out to be broken but you can't have everything. We dumped our stuff and went exploring.

As CK had told us, shops in Seoul are organised by districts, which specialise in a particular type of shop (his example was the motorbike and pet shops district). In one direction was obviously the musical instruments district, with guitar shops and music academies everywhere. We decided to check that out the next day and headed in the other direction, towards an entertainment district full of bars, restaurants, and Koreans out having a good time. The footpath was packed with food stalls selling all sorts of bizzare Korean street food. Many of them even had stools and counters for people to sit at while they ate. There was also an alleyway where the fortune tellers had set up their tents. Anna mentioned to me that she wanted to try a proper hotteok (a Korean pancake stuffed with walnuts and sugar) and we realised that the stall we were standing next to was selling them. This hotteok was better than one we'd tried at the Gimje Horizons Festival, but still not as amazing as it could be. We'll just have to keep looking for the perfect one.

We kept walking, and the bar and restaurant district seemed to go on forever: block after block of Korean restaurants, cafe's and the inescapable "chicken and hoff" dives, which sell beer, soju and fried chicken to the Koreans we saw stumbling around when we returned to our motel a couple of hours later. We even found a Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc in one of the bars, but at 50,000 won (about $60) a bottle we decided against it. We both miss having deccent wine, but we don't miss it that much. After walking for a while things started looking familiar and we realised we were near Cheonggyecheon.

Cheonggyecheon was for many years the site of an elevated motorway above a neglected, dirty stream. In July 2003, then-Seoul mayor and current President of Korea Lee Myung-bak initiated a project to remove the elevated highway and restore the stream. The result is a beautiful stream with park-like walkways on each side in the centre of Seoul, where once there was an ugly motorway. There are several waterfalls and fountains as well. When we got to the stream we discovered that there was a lantern festival happening. A big section of the stream was filled with beautiful lanterns depicting animals, people, buildings, and traditonal Korean activities.

After marvelling at these works of art for a while we went and found dinner at a Japanese restaurant and headed back to our motel.

The next day we set off on another mystery activity. This involved ninety minutes on a train, standing up because it was so full there were no seats available. We made friends with a very friendly Korean couple who spoke quite good English. They also said "wow" way too much, but I think that was less genuine amazement at everything we said and more from having a limited vocabulary. They were off to his parents house to make kimchi.

We got off the train and found a small Korean town that looked like Buan. This didn't seem like a great birthday surprise, but it turned out to be just a transfer point for the bus to our real destination. The bus was just as full as the train and I think it was the driver's first time in a manual. We bounced our way out of town and up into the mountains. As the scenery got nicer and nicer I began to think we were going somewhere to look at the autumn leaves. After a while we saw more and more signs for the Garden of Morning Calm, which was of course our destination. I hadn't heard of this place but apparently it's one of the most famous gardens in Korea. Along with thousands of Koreans we wandered around it's many beautiful gardens. Rather than attempt to describe them I'll show you some photos.

[Edit: I originally had more photos in this post, but blogger, in its infinite retardation, took me clicking "spellcheck" to mean "replace all my photos with strings of random characters". I got most of them back but I'm now posting this from school and don't have the garden photos on my USB drive. We won't be home again till Sunday, but I'll post some more then.]

We climbed up a hill that has an amazing panorama of the garden. There are also signs which claim that the garden, when viewed from this angle, is shaped like the Korean peninsula. This is basically a lie, but it does look beautiful.

[For now you will just have to take my word for it.]

We caught the bus back with every other person in Korea. On the train back we ran into the Korean couple we had been talking to on the way there. They'd finished making their Kimchi and were heading home. We had another nice chat to them and told them all about the garden. As they were leaving the train they gave me a magazine that tried to convince me to become a Jehovah's Witness.

After Skyping in to the birthday party my mates were having for me in Wellington we had dinner at Namaste, our favourite Indian restaurant in Korea, and got some takeaways to take back to Buan. While we were waiting for our meals a young Korean woman came over to our table and gave us some scratch cards. She was promoting a naan and curry mix that is apparently available in supermarkets. Anna's card won her a free sample of the mix, but we haven't had a chance to try it yet.

On Sunday we had a long list of stuff to do and not much time to do it in. We had a mystery activity at 4:30 sharp that was the last part of my birthday present, but before that we wanted to go to a bunch of other places. First stop was to check out the music shops around the corner. Sadly the really cool looking two story guitar shop was closed. I did manage to get a guitar stand though, in a funny little shop tucked into the side of a building that spanned the street. Next stop was Itaewon to visit the amazing Passion5 bakery (I will have to write more about this at some point) and the international food store for spices, salsa, and salt and vinegar chips. After this I was determined to visit the National War Museum, since we have been to Seoul twice and have visited only one palace and no museums or galleries. We made it to the museum, but not inside as we were distracted by all the planes, tanks, boats, missiles, and guns on display outside (Anna was less distracted than me).

I'm not a big military history buff or a tanks and guns type but it's still cool to see this stuff for real. The entrance to the museum itself is a huge war memorial for all the people who died fighting for the South in the Korean war, and several statues symbolising Koreans' desire for reunification. Two huge walkways with dozens of plaques on each wall, and hundreds of names on each plaque.

After this we tracked down a great Mexican place called Dos Tacos that we'd read about on someone else's blog. Their post has instructions on how to get there should you ever be in Seoul, and a good rundown of the food. They don't mention the quesadillas though, which means they can't have tried them because they were too amazing to skip! We'd had some okay Mexican food in Busan a couple of weeks before, but Dos Tacos put it to shame. Suitably satisfied we grabbed a cab and rushed to Costco.

Why Costco? Cheese. And bagels. I never understood how much I liked cheese before I came to Buan and had to eat the squares of flavourless yellow plastic that pass for cheese here. But at Costco you can get actual American cheese. Granted it's not quite as good as proper cheese from New Zealand, but they do their best. You can also get the same cheese at some international stores in the big cities, but it's a lot more expensive. As for bagels, I've been having them for breakfast because I can eat them while I rush off to school in the morning. This also gives me an opportunity to be stared at by hundreds of Korean school children wondering why the scary white giant is eating outside. It's considered impolite to eat in the street here, but I figure I'm going to be stared at anyway so I might as well not be hungry. You can get bagels at Paris Baguette (a local chain of sub-par French bakeries), but Costco's are better and cheaper. It seemed that everyone else felt as strongly as I do about cheese and bagels, because Costco was packed. After pushing my way through to get our precious Western food we had only about half an hour to get accross Seoul for 4:30.

We jumped in a cab with all our luggage (and all our bagels) and headed for the subway station. There was a bit of traffic but it wasn't too bad. Fortunately the train arrived just as we got to the platform and we didn't have to wait too long when we transferred either (although we did go to the wrong side of the tracks and have to go back). By this time I had an inkling of what this last surprise was, and I was excited. But time was running out and it looked pretty unlikely we would make it in time. Sure enough 4:30 came and went and we were still a couple of subway stops from Seoul Station. When we got there Anna told me what the surprise was: we were catching the KTX (the Korean bullet train) back home. Or, more accurately, we were missing the KTX back home. I was really disappointed as I'm really keen to go on the KTX and it would've been an awesome present. There'll be another chance to catch it, but for now it was back onto the subway and a long ride to the bus terminal.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

In Which KaroritoKorea Briefly Becomes a Food Blog

Tom and I have spent waaaaay too much money on Western food here so I'm trying to make more of an effort to cook Korean. So far I've conquered bibimbap and Kimchi jjigae, and because the latter is so delicious I'm gonna show you how to make it.

Laptops and guitar strings are vital ingredients
First - get the ingredients. I used a blend of these two recipes because I didn't have the full ingredient list for either. The main ingredient is Kimchi, the fermented vegetable dish that Korea is famous for. My Nana was right, kimchi is served with EVERYTHING here. When we moved in, Tom's co-teacher gave us a big tupperware container full of cabbage kimchi, which has been sitting in the fridge, virtually untouched. Fortunately, old kimchi is perfect for kimchi jjigae. Next on the list is pork - usually you'd use pork belly but as I'm too nervous to order some from the butcher I just used a pack of bacon.

Slice the bacon and half an onion, and cook it in a deep pan over a high heat, until the bacon is cooked. Then put in about one and a half cups of thickly sliced kimchi, and a few minced cloves of garlic.

Take an awkward picture of yourself doing it, too!
Cook the kimchi, bacon, onions and garlic until your kitchen smells delicious.

This should take 2 or three minutes. Then add 2 table spoons of sugar, two teaspoons of light soy sauce, a good teaspoon of fresh ginger, two cups of water and half a cup of 'kimchi juice,' the liquid that comes off the kimchi.

Action shot!
Let this mix bubble away for 5 minutes and then give it a taste test for spiciness. Both recipes call for some gochugang - Korean red chilli paste - at this point, but the first batch I made was hot as hell so I left the chilli paste out. I did, however, add some soju - deeelicious!

You also need to put in a good chunk of cubed tofu. I think I put in about 250 grams but next time I'll add more.

Let it bubble away for about 20 minutes until the kimchi is nice and tender. And then, get into your laze-around-the-house dress, get a hangover, ask your boyfriend to take a picture of you, make a stupid face and tuck in! Nom nom nom.

I will blog, damnit.

We're spending this weekend in Buan to take a break and chill out, after gallivanting around Korea every weekend for about two months. Instead of blogging I've been watching OK Go music videos (White Knuckles is particularly awesome) and doing laundry, so here goes.

I've been tutoring Alice, a middle school kid during the week and her family invited Tom and I to dinner last night. We happily accepted and were treated to a huge feast of Bossam and Japchae while our host plied us with soju, wine and some very good whiskey. Alice's whole family was there including her super cute niece and nephew, who were terrified of the big white person trying to play peek-a-boo with them.

After dinner, great conversation and a lot of drinking we headed to a nearby Noraebang. Noraebangs (literally 'singing room,' don't believe Wikipedia's translation) are everywhere in Korea, and we've been to a few in our time here. You enter, pay for the amount of time you want - per hour - and then you're hustled into a private room kitted out with karaoke equipment, sofas, disco balls and tambourines. The Noraebangs usually have 10 to 20 of these rooms, and the hourly rate depends on the number of people. The most we've paid was 30,000 won per hour, for a room that held 12 people. It's more like playing SingStar at home than going to Club K in Wellington.

There's usually a few pages of English-language songs to choose from, and to make the entire experience less painful, you can bring in your own snacks and drinks! Original Plum makes soju much more palatable.

You can sit on the sofa and sing, but if you're with Koreans you'll be dancing, shaking the tambourine, downing soju and singing at the top of your lungs. When we were in Seoul, we chopped through 16 bottles of soju in a three hour period, sang 'I Believe I Can Fly' about four times and covered the floor in shot glasses. Last night, I sang Justin Bieber's 'Baby' and then Alice taught me how to dance along to 'Nobody' by K-Pop band, The Wondergirls. After we'd finished, we went back to our host's house, ate fried chicken and drank beer, and then stumbled home at 1 in the morning. Fantastic!