My Mom’s trip to South Korea

After living in South Korea for almost two years, I finally had my first visitor!  My mom came to see me for 10 days!

We got to take a bus tour around Seoul and do some exploring in Cheonan.  I asked her some questions about her experience.  Since I’ve been in Korea for a while now and feel more adjusted to Korean culture, sometimes I forget about the practical differences between Korean and American culture.

me and my mom!

me and my mom!

  1. What were some of your first impressions when you arrived in Korea?

I was very surprised at how few non-Koreans I saw (*South Korea is around 96% ethnically Korean). I was shocked to have people ask to take a picture of me and to have somebody so excited to see me just because I wasn’t Asian. Everything was very clean. It was cool to see the juxtaposition of the old palaces and temples against the modern skyscrapers. I thought it was interesting that Korean women cover themselves from head to toe because they don’t want any sun (*tanning is not common here but it is getting more popular). I was really an oddity for having no sleeves on my shirt when it was 85° outside. I was surprised how openly affectionate girls were. They were holding hands as they walked down the street. Boyfriends and girlfriends dressing up in identical outfits was also weird to me (*I’ve seen many Korean couples wear matching t-shirts but sometimes they wear entire matching outfits, including their shoes and backpacks).

2. What were some of your favorite parts of your trip?

My favorite part of my trip was just being with my daughter (*I did not tell her to say that)! I enjoyed seeing the old temples and palaces. I thought the market in the middle of the city was fascinating. I enjoyed being able to eat a variety of foods, the pasta dish I had in the food court at the mall was some of the best pasta I’ve ever eaten (*we went to a mall in Cheonan). The red chili paste was a little too intense in some of the dishes for my non-spicy pallet.

Namdaemun market

Namdaemun market

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food displays

restaurant street in the market

restaurant street in the market

fabric store

paper store

3. What were some things that surprised you during your trip?

I was surprised to see local farmers selling their produce on the street corners. All the spam gift-packs fascinated me (*I mentioned the spam before here), as did the grocery cart escalator. I loved having all the little restaurants everywhere so that you had amazing food choices that weren’t that expensive. It was odd to have complete strangers talk to you because they wanted to practice their English. I did start consciously not making eye contact with people as we walked along the street because it does get a little disconcerting to be stared at. It’s very odd to be a minority because in American culture we see every race and color of people and don’t even think about it. It’s very bewildering to not understand anything that’s going on around you when you don’t speak any of that country’s language. I would never have felt comfortable being in that country without having a daughter that spoke the language (*I would like to point out that I am definitely not fluent in Korean but I can get by).

the wheels on the grocery cart stick to the escalator

the wheels on the grocery cart stick to the escalator

4. What are some things done in Korea that you would like to see implemented in the United States?

It would be nice to be able to leave your purse, your phone or your wallet in the United States and know that nobody would take it, but that doesn’t happen. It would also be nice to be able to walk anywhere or go anywhere and not have to worry about your personal safety in the United States. I also liked the ease of buses, trains, and subways in Korea that could take you anywhere. *She did not, however, want to bring the tradition of eating while sitting on the floor back to America.  She said her bones are too stiff after like that for a few hours.

5. If you get the chance to come back, what else would you like to see or experience?

I would like to explore some of the coastal cities, go to some of the islands. I would like to hike in some of the hills and see the DMZ.

we are eating samgyeopsal (pork barbecue)

we are eating samgyeopsal (pork barbecue)

mom in the Seoul subway

mom in the Seoul subway

Who else wants to visit me? =D

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The Jokhang Temple

It isn’t the oldest or largest temple in Tibet but it is a vital part of the history of Buddhism in Tibet.  During the seventh century, a king called Songtsan Gampo married a princess of the Tang Dynasty in China.  The princess brought a statue of the 12-year-old Buddha with her when she got married and now the statue is housed in the temple.  Buddhism became more popular in Tibet and the temple grew more and more famous.  Buddhist pilgrims come to the temple to get a glimpse of the statue.

The temple is also in the middle of old Lhasa, a perfect area for walking around and finding restaurants and souvenir shops.

the temple

outside the temple

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inside the temple yard

inside the temple yard

this is not the famous Buddha statue, this was just a statue we were actually allowed to take pictures of

this is not the famous Buddha statue, this was just a statue we were actually allowed to take pictures of

Many pilgrims were prostrating at the entrance of the temple, but most of the people there were tourists in hiking gear with fancy cameras.  We got to see the enormous Buddha statue but couldn’t take pictures of it.

Once the sun came out, we got to walk around on the top level and it was gorgeous!

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you can see the Potala Palace in the distance

you can see the Potala Palace in the distance

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The Potala Palace

If you lived next to the Taj Mahal, would it lose its grandeur after a while? What if you lived next to the Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower?  When our bus drove into Lhasa on the way to our respective hotels, the tour guide casually pointed out the window and said “the Potala Palace is at the start of this street here”.

We all whipped our heads around to get a better look.  I couldn’t believe I would be staying at a hotel just a few blocks away from the ultimate symbol of Lhasa.

The palace dates back to the 7th century.  It had been destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout history.  During the 17th century, one of the Dalai Lamas decided to rebuild it and make it the center of the Tibetan government and of Tibetan Buddhism.  The current Dalai Lama lived here until he fled to India in 1959 to live in exile.

The Potala Palace is one of the few famous sites in Tibet that wasn’t destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  According to our guide, Zhou Enlai (Premier of the People’s Republic of China) decided to leave the palace untouched. Maybe he was a fan of the architecture?

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Our guide told us we went on a pretty normal day when it came to crowds.  It was already packed, so I can’t imagine what it would be like on a crowded day.  Every person that had a ticket only had a limited amount of time on the grounds to accommodate all the visitors.  Like all the other places we visited, we had to go through security and Chinese soldiers were always close by.

We climbed up the countless stairs with other foreign tourists, nomads from various Tibetan regions, pilgrims, and locals who have probably walked past the palace a hundred times.

stores lined the perimeter around the palace

stores lined the perimeter around the palace

prayer wheels

prayer wheels

that smoke in the distance is incense

that smoke in the distance is incense

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trekking up the stairs

trekking up the stairs

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can you see the long line of people going up the stairs?

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I could see the palace from my hotel roof every morning where they served breakfast, but of course, exploring it myself was even better.

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“I love you, here’s some spam”

Chuseok is considered to be the Korean Thanksgiving.  It happens on a different date each year but is during the fall time and celebrates the fall harvest.  People get time off work and spend time with their extended families and often visit their ancestral graves.

It is also a time to give gifts to your family members, your bosses, and friends.  One of the most popular gifts to give is a case of high-end spam.

the gift of spam

the gift of spam

Spam was brought to Korea by American soldiers during the Korean War.  The country was impoverished and war-torn and food was hard to find.  Finding a source of protein like meat was even harder.

Now it is used frequently in stews, fried rice dishes, and comes in a variety of flavors.  The picture above is the “premium gift set” and costs about $45.  That must be some good spam.

There are plenty of other gift sets with items like shampoo, lotion, dried fruit, and dried whole fish.

dried persimmons

dried persimmons from $100 to $200

dried fish used for cooking

dried fish used for cooking

packages of whole fish

packages of whole fish, the one in the middle is a whopping $350

So the next time you are thinking about buying a gift and you find yourself stumped, just go for some spam.

Posted in Korean holidays, Slice of Life | 1 Comment

I moved!

I’ve been away from the blog because I got a new job at two schools in Cheonan!  While moving to Seoul from Cheonan only takes an hour on the bus, I’ve been busy cleaning, unpacking, cleaning, setting up lesson plans, cleaning, meeting all the students and teachers, and cleaning.  Did I mention I never seem to get clean apartments in Korea?

new job...

new job…

...and an awesome view!

…and an awesome view!

temple right outside the city

temple right outside the city

this is right by one of my schools

this is right by one of my schools

I’m not done posting about Tibet just yet, so stay tuned for more Tibet trip pictures and stories!

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The Drepung and Sera Monasteries

Buddhism is an integral part of Tibetan culture.  At one point, it was custom for every family to send at least one son to study at a monastery.  The tour I went on took us to two monasteries out in the outskirts of Lhasa.

Some tours have the guides practically sprinting through the sights to pack in as many places as possible.  Luckily as soon as we arrived to the Drepung Monastery, our guide told us we would take our time.

We had to put our bags through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector at both monasteries.  It was also hard to miss the Chinese soldiers hanging around.  They didn’t bother us or follow us anywhere, but it wasn’t the most comfortable feeling.

The Drepung Monastery was historically one of the most important monasteries in all of Tibet.  The guide actually said it was the most important but I don’t feel qualified to state that myself.  Before the Chinese government put caps on how many monks could join a monastery, the Drepung Monastery had thousands of monks.  Now, it has a few hundred.

We were able to see volumes and volumes of Buddhist texts, statues, and other sacred relics, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings.  Although that never seems to stop people from sneaking out their phones when the guide isn’t looking.

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Many stray dogs find their way to a monastery where they enjoy naps under the sun while annoying tourists such as myself take pictures of them.

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We then went to the Sera Monastery, which took less time to explore because it was physically much smaller.  The same rules applied to picture taking.

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What makes visiting the Sera Monastery unique is the fact you can watch monks debate.  In order to become a fully fledged monk you need to pass exams, and one of those exams involves debating your fellow monks.  I had no idea what topics they were debating but the guide explained there are so many texts, philosophies, and aspects of Buddhism that they will probably always have some reason to argue.

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I found it odd that we were allowed to photograph the monks debating when we weren’t allowed to take pictures of anything inside the monastery.  There were a few Chinese soldiers posted around the courtyard making sure you didn’t get too close to the monks.

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For me, being able to see the beautiful mountains and look at all the architecture made the day.  Normally I don’t mind going to places without guides because I just enjoy the scenery.  However, I learned infinitely more about how Buddhism plays a part in every day Tibetan life by actually having a Tibetan guide there teaching us.

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Lhasa: Visiting the Roof of the World

Traveling to Tibet has been a dream of mine since I first read a travel book about it in my elementary school library.  However, you can’t just stroll out of the Lhasa airport and start exploring Tibet.  The Tibetan Autonomous Region is controlled by China and you need a permit from the Chinese government to visit the area and for many people, that means signing up with a tour company that can arrange getting the permit for you.

I went on a four day tour of Lhasa with Tibet Vista.  Two couples were in the same group as me, one from the United States and one from Austria.  Our guide was a mischievous and kind man who was born and raised in Lhasa.

I flew to Lhasa from Chengdu.  Taking the train from Chengdu to Lhasa is a popular option, but it also takes 42 hours.  I didn’t have the extra hours to take the the train this time, I’ll have to save it for a future trip.

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Once you drive through the mountains from the airport, it takes about an hour to get to the actual city.  The newer developments surround the old city.  The first things you see are the apartment blocks, shopping malls, and manicured parks.  I stayed at a hotel in the old part of the city where most of the buildings didn’t go higher than four stories.

the view from my hotel roof

the view from my hotel roof, you can see the Potala Palace in the right corner

my hotel room

my hotel room

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the balcony of a cafe

the balcony of a cafe

some "altitude relaxation" tea

some “altitude relaxation” tea

Lhasa is also about 3,600 meters above sea level (11,800 feet).  I was very fortunate to not feel any kind of altitude sickness.  I don’t know if it was luck or just all the water I was drinking but I did see people holding their heads in pain and wheezing when going up stairs.  I also had a cup of “altitude relaxation” tea on my first day there.  I don’t know what properties made it good for the altitude, it could have just been a ploy for a clueless tourist like me to buy a drink.

The sky was blue and the air was clean and the mountains stopped me in my tracks and made my jaw drop constantly.  I will have several posts soon of all the monasteries, temples, and neighborhoods I explored.

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Gapyeong County: Picture Perfect

If you take the subway in Seoul, you will without a doubt end up seeing advertisements for different areas in Korea made by the Korean tourism board.  All the pictures for Gapyeong County looked beautiful and that was inspiration enough to go.

After hanging around Nami Island, I walked around Gapyeong station and Cheongpyeong station.  I wish I could have had a week here instead of two days.

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I stayed at a hostel next to Cheongpyeong station.  The station is right next to a river with great views of the mountains.

this was right next to my hostel

this was right next to my hostel

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Instead of hearing car horns and people yelling on the streets of Seoul, I heard nothing but birds and cicadas.  It was a much need relaxing weekend.

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Nami Island

I’ve heard Nami Island is touristy and it certainly is.  However, my theory is if a place is pretty and I enjoy being there, I don’t care how popular it is.  Some places are well-known for a reason.

I took the train to Gapyeong station, which is the closest station to the ferry pier to Nami Island.  You can take the local trains all the way from Seoul to Gapyeong station, but I went for the 40 minute ride on the ITX train instead.

You can take a bus or taxi to the pier from the train station, but I ended up walking because the buses don’t come frequently and I didn’t want to spend the extra money on a taxi since I was by myself.  It only took 20 minutes of walking along the main road.

Once you arrive at the pier, you buy a “visa” to the island.  Part of the tourism scheme (is scheme too harsh a word?) is the idea that Nami Island is its own country.  You can buy a passport for more money that allows unlimited access to the island for a set amount of months.  The visa costs 10,000 won but since I am a foreigner, I got a visa for 8,000 won.

The ferries run often and the ride is short.  There is a sitting area on the ferry or you can stand on the deck.  A round-trip ferry ride is included in the price of the visa.

the "immigration" office

the “immigration” office

the river view, complete with the zip line

the river view

The weather switched between cloudy and sunny throughout the day.  I got there in the morning and left after eating lunch.  It was fairly crowded in the morning but I could still walk around without running into people.  As the day went on, the tour buses came rolling into the pier parking lot and the island was packed.

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I liked seeing all the gardens and snowmen statues.  It was nice to put my phone away and breathe in some fresh air.

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I didn't see any wild ostriches, but apparently they were out there somewhere

I didn’t see any wild ostriches, but apparently they were out there somewhere

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The island had several gift shops, restaurants, a few hotels/cabins, and a wild peacock that scared every small child with its terrifying chirping.  Peacocks are loud.

you could buy ostrich pens

you could buy ostrich pens

does this remind anyone of a spaceship?

does this remind anyone of a spaceship?

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There were several restaurants and coffee shops around the pier parking lot.  When I came back from the island, I crashed in a coffee shop just to decompress and stay out of the hot sun.  This day trip was worth getting up early.

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How many snowmen can you find in July?

I ventured out to Nami island last weekend.  It is a little island in the middle of Bukhan river, a tributary of the Han river.

Besides being a beautiful picture background, the island’s big claim to fame is being a shooting location for the incredibly popular Korean drama Winter Sonata.  They have signs throughout the island pointing out where scenes were filmed.

The island also has an adorable snowman to be its mascot.  You can buy snowman cookies, ice creams, salt shakers, mugs, and just about anything else you can cover with printed picture of a snowman.

isn't it cute?

isn’t it cute?

family of snowmen

family of snowmen

They had several snowmen in traditional dress of different countries.

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a secret snowman

a secret snowman

some Thai snowmen

some Thai snowmen

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The Winter Sonata cafe

They aren’t the most appropriate mascot for the summer season but they’re so cute, they can get away with it.

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