Namdaemun (Great South Gate), Seoul For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
This 600 year old gate burnt down weeks after I was there
Korea was the first stop on my sixth major international venture
. I write this blog in retrospect, over a year later, so I now know that it was also the start of my longest, and perhaps this time permanent, foray into new and beautiful places. It was also my second visit to South Korea, the first one being a week long stopover at the end of my first trip over eight years ago. On that first visit I had found the Korean people to be a little bit stern and didn't understand why they stared at me so much, but this time around I had a much deeper understanding of Asian culture and was ready to give the country a second chance.
I left Canada with a lot on my mind, but as it turns out the job I signed up for was so hectic and tiring that I had little time to even ponder the passing moments. I became fully immersed in my work, as well as the interesting culture of this unique north-east Asian nation, and before I knew it my time was
up and I had to move on to my next destination.
My job was to teach English to youngsters at an intensive three week English winter camp in a small provincial town less than an hour south-east of Seoul called Yeoju, famous for it's traditional ceramics and pottery
. I had only taught English once before, over a year earlier and to young adults, so this would be a totally new but very important development in my teaching career.
I landed at the Incheon International airport, which is located on Yeongjongdo island, off the west coast of South Korea. It was late so I spent the night in a hotel on the island, and the next morning I went straight to the Haesupia Spa
, one of the few salt water hot springs
in the world. I have visited hot springs in Japan and Korea before, but it is always a bit of a shock to enter a room jam packed with naked Korean men lounging and grooming themselves. But I love it nonetheless, and this spa in particular was excellent, with different scented pools, massage jets and waterfalls, and entirely conducive to relaxation and a state of bliss, particularly
on a snowy Korean winter morning...
From Yeongjongdo I got a direct bus to Yeoju University
, the campus where I would be teaching my winter camp. The campus was entirely deserted and I had some trouble finding our dorm until I ran into Danman and Brian, two Canadian brothers living in Thailand and Australia respectively, who I would become close with over the following weeks.
Our rooms were dormitory style, and I would be sharing with Jeremy, an American reporter living in Thailand at the time and now in Dubai. For the first few days of our stay the heat was not turned on yet, and we were freezing! I recall wearing a toque, gloves, and winter jacket as I checked my e-mail in the little makeshift teacher's lounge.
For the first few days my Korean boss Margaret treated all the teachers to meals at a friendly Korean place below the University, where I was introduced to many of the Korean staple dishes. I was already quite familiar with Kim Chi, the Korean national dish
, which is a pungent appetizer consisting of super spicy pickled raw vegetables that accompanies virtually every meal in Korea. However, my new
It's like a salad, with veggies, rice, spicy red sauce and an egg all stirred up together.
favorite dish was Bibimbap
, a salad of sorts served in a large metal bowl, and accompanied with an egg (sometimes raw, sometimes fried), a bowl of rice, and some spicy red sauce, all of which you proceed to stir up together and consume.
We also enjoyed Korean style Barbecue
, where you cook all the food yourself at a propane fueled circular stove set in the table, and of course you are seated in the traditional manner
, on comfy cushions on the floor, which itself is heated by hot water pipes below, so that within minutes your bum is nice and warm
. And perhaps the most interesting part of dining in Korea is that every meal is accompanied with a ridiculous number of side dishes
, which fill up all the available space on your table, and are all constantly refilled by the friendly staff.
After a few days of preparation, the little monsters arrived in huge buses from Seoul
. My kids would be aged 8-11, though Korean ages are sometimes a little difficult to pinpoint, because they turn 1 at birth, and then 2 at the following New Year. Over the next three weeks I would teach these little
guys for several hours a day, as well as teaching some rotating activity classes of my choice, such as Christmas arts, yoga, snowball fights, and a nature walk in the hills around the University
As always the girls in my class were exceptionally intelligent and well behaved, and the boys exceptionally rambunctious and difficult to manage. My favorite student was this particularly sweet girl who was a bit of an outcast, and had a particular style and sense of creativity that was uncommon for people in this country, especially children. She loved to follow me around and talk with me, and all the teachers agreed that she was the cutest girl
in the school. She did not yet have an English name, so I named her Leanne
, after my sister.
As you may or may not know, Asia is land of cheese when it comes to music, advertisements, and pretty much everything, and Korea holds the crown for the cheesiest of them all. Our camp had an official camp theme song
, which was a terrible adaptation of an Aqua song, if you are familiar with this late 90's techno atrocity, and once the students arrived, all of the
teachers had to demonstrate the camp theme dance on a stage in front of the school, all of which was broadcast over the internet to observing parents. I could be seen hiding somewhere near the back.
We also had camp outfits, songs to sing with our kids before all the meals, which were communal style in the cafeteria (though the teachers were allowed their own table and western style food for breakfast), a class play to prepare and perform at the end of camp, and we were woken every morning by the Aqua song played over loudspeakers at 8am
I truly worked my butt off at this camp, and in the little spare time we had at night, I could usually be found writing e-mails in the teacher's lounge, preparing lessons for the next day, watching movies with other teachers, or playing a painful game that we invented and dubbed Dockey
, which combines dodge ball and hockey. The camp was also a dry one, understandably, and it was not until the last night of camp that my roommate and I journeyed outside and got wasted at a local pub.
Every Saturday morning we had a field trip,
some of which included pottery making and tobogganing in a local national park. Korean-style tobogganing
is another classic example of the Asian cheese. The site was more like an international theme park, which included fake igloos and Native American statues, the Eiffel tower, a horrendous animal prison with bears and large wild cats in tiny cages, an ornamental chair lift which served as a ride (not to go up the hill), and a huge food center. Oh ya, and a tobogganing hill. There were so many kids that they had to line up in rows with their rental toboggans, and take off one row at a time when the announcer blew a whistle.
Saturday afternoons, evenings, and Sundays were my official travel time. On the first weekend I caught the bus into Seoul with my roommate, and we met up with Sarah and Julie, two of my oldest friends, who were at the time teaching English in Pusan, southern South Korea. Our hotel of choice was the Seoul Guesthouse, a Hanok, or traditional Korean style house
located in the quaint Bukchon Hanok Village
section of the city. Our room was small but comfy, and came equipped with traditional sliding
At the Temple Restaurant, Insadong, Seoul
paper doors and a heated floor.
For dinner we went to Sanchon, a temple themed vegetarian restaurant
located in Insadong, a somewhat trendy and touristy neighborhood in central Seoul. The meal included no less than 16 side dishes, which filled up the entire surface of the table, as well as heated floors, and traditional dance and cultural performances. After this dose of culture we hit up the clubs, stopping in at a local punk show, a hookah restaurant, and then a drum 'n bass club for some late night dancing until dawn. The next day we visited some ancient palaces and gates, and also strolled some interesting streets and vintage shops, before parting ways back to our respective cities of employment.
For my second weekend I craved some solitude, so I made for the hills in Chiaksan National Park
. I visited the impressive Guryongsa Temple
, which was very picturesque in the snowy winter setting. My next plan was to stay in a minbak
, a traditional Korean style guesthouse, but I didn't have much luck finding any people in the local village, let alone a place to stay, so I exited the park and found a decent hotel in
Chiaksan National Park
the nearest town, where I spent the night doing what most people crave after a week of intensive teaching: get drunk.
The next day I headed back up to the National park, where I hiked the icy trail up to the summit of Mount Birobong
, passing many beautiful frozen waterfalls and temples en route. I stopped more then once to take up Korean hiker's offers of shots of stiff soju
, the infamous Korean distilled rice liquor which provides a little assistance to deal with the cold winter temperatures.
Near the summit I was approached by an elderly tramper who, like most of the Korean people I had been passing that day, was appalled at the fact that I didn't have ice-climbing spikes attached to my shoes, which I found highly unecessary
. Like most Korean sportsmen, the hikers in this country like to get decked out in expensive and glamorous brand name gear, complete with hiking poles and accessories hanging from every available strap of their pack. I was however very thankful to meet this kind old man, and we gunned it all the way down the mountain together, and to be honest, I had a lot of trouble
keeping up with him.
If you are not yet familiar with the term 'cheesy' in the sense that have here used it, then I will now give you a definition. It was called our end-of-camp farewell party. Try to imagine a massive bonfire in the middle of a field, which was ignited by a flaming star which descended from the rooftop of an adjacent building
, and around it is a huge circle formed by roughly 100 Korean children all holding hands and dancing to (yes, you guessed it) the Aqua camp theme song.
Then came the finishing touch. They put on the sad music, and told all the kids you must now say goodbye to your classmates and teacher. And almost simultaneously, all the children burst into tears
, and we spend the next ten minutes or so holding and hugging each other. My group was particularly teary, given that they were old enough to develop attachments, but not so old that they were too cool to cry. The emotions even got to me a little, and I won't even deny that I shed a tear or two.
But my Korean adventure was not quite over yet. The
next day I caught the bus into Seoul with the kids, and then jumped on the high speed rail south to Pusan, the second largest city in South Korea
and home of my friends Sarah and Julie.
We stayed at Sarah's excessively large and glamorous apartment
, complete with the sweetest toilet I have ever seen
, including heated seat, spray, and fan options. Sarah also borrowed a cute little kitty from her friend for my visit, and in the morning time her and Julie were also so kind that they made us delicious pancakes.
The first place they took me in Pusan was an excellent teashop with a super cute puppy and perhaps the best tea I have ever had
. Then over the next few days they showed me the sites of this very pleasant city, perhaps the most livable in the country, including Haeundae, the most famous beach in Korea
, which is just down the street from Julie's apartment, as well as a gondola ride up to Genmgang Park, overlooking the city
. At night we went for a somewhat disturbing and overpriced meal of raw fish insides, followed up with a ride on the huge rocking boat on
Two blocks from Julie's place!
the beach and then some drinking (yes, we felt as gross as it sounds) and shooting off fireworks on the beach
, which seems to be an extremely popular Korean pastime.
Back in Sarah's neighborhood, which sits on a huge area of geothermal activity, we visited Hurshimchung, the largest hot springs bathhouse in the world
. Again it was sex segregated to allow for the full on nude experience, but there was a communal (clothed) meeting area with heated floors, lounging areas, sweat lodges, and mini pools where you can plunge your feet in and have all the dead skin eaten off by tiny fish
, which tickles and feels about as weird as you might expect.
Back in the bathing area you could enjoy a plethora of indoor and outdoor sculpted baths, with a variety of different scents including jasmine, cherry blossom and green tea. I can quite confidently say that I have never seen so many naked men in one area at one time in all of my life. Following our bathing session we went out to enjoy some delicious cheesy rice
, once again cooked right at your table, and we ordered extra-extra cheese of course.
was time for us to part ways. We said our goodbyes, and then I made one last stop in Pusan, at the beautiful Beomeosa Temple
, located in the hills just outside of the city. Then I caught a bus back to Seoul, and spent my last night in one of the city's numerous Love Hotels
, which serve a certain purpose, as you can probably gather, but in fact also make an excellent base for travelers because they are cheap, clean, and mine included free internet in the room.
For my last night in Korea I did a quick photography tour of the city, capturing some excellent photos at the incredible 600 year old Namdaemun (Great South Gate), which burned down only two weeks after I was there
. Then I met up with some teacher friends for a last meal in, and that about sums it all up! I can certainly say that my impression of South Korea was much different than my first time. I left feeling rejuvenated, moved, accomplished, and intrigued by this very unique and Confucian society. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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