Traveling in South Korea

imageAfter a 3 hour flight from Hong Kong, we landed in Seoul where we spent our first night. Korea is very different from HK. For starters, most Koreans do not speak any appreciable English. As a result, we were compelled to learn a few phrases in Korean, which I am sure were mangled as completely by us as were the heavily accented English phrases tackled by the few brave Koreans (mostly taxi drivers and hotel desk clerks) forced through circumstance to attempt communication with us. The next day, we boarded the high-speed KTX train to Busan where we met Lydia who negotiates the logistics of life in Korea like a local. It was great to see her thriving so gracefully in the life she has created here. The first evening, we ate a traditional Korean meal with two of her friends, Megan and Soon-su. The following day, we spent the morning visiting the Busan Foreign School in Lydia’s classroom of twelve 2nd grade students who were quite excited to see Ms Schmidt’s father and step-mother. Lydia is a calm, competent, resourceful teacher who models excellence. Her students adore her. It was terrific to get a chance to see her in action. image

The three of us traveled to the northeast coast of South Korea for a long weekend where we stayed in a pension and visited the seaside fishing town of Sokcho, hiked in the beautiful Seoraksan National Park, and explored the vast Huangseon Cave. Then Lydia returned to Busan for the resumption of school while Martha and I ventured on by ourselves into the central mountain villages of Korea. We took the train to Andong, near the still intact traditional Korean village of Hahoe, where we spent the night in an old-style hanok, sleeping on a simple pallet on the heated floor. The next day, we took the train to Gyeongju. We hired a taxi for 5 hours to visit Bulguksa Temple, the cave temple at Seokgulam Grotto, and the palaces of Anjapi Pond, where a treasure trove of well-preserved relics from the Silla era were discovered and excavated. We toured the Gyeongju National Museum where these relics are displayed, as well as those from the excavation of Cheonmachong, one of the mounds of the Daereungwon Royal Tombs where we walked one afternoon.

We spent the night in a Templestay at Haeinsa, a Buddhist monastery imagewhere the Tripitaka Koreana (81,000 wooden printing blocks of Buddha’s teachings carved in the 13th century) has been housed in the same building continuously since 1398. We were given shapeless brown cotton trousers and jackets to wear, instructed in temple etiquette by a monk (with whom we later had a Q & A over tea), and led, bowing politely to every monk we encountered, in orderly lines to the beautiful main temple where about 60 monks chanted sonorously as we practiced our inept prostrations before proceeding to dinner in silence. Sleeping on pallets and awakening at 3 AM for more chanting and bowing left us pretty exhausted the next day as we returned to Busan where Lydia took us to the best 2 hours we have experienced in Korea, a jimjilbang. This fabulous place is like a private club, but open to the public. After soaking in a series of increasingly warmer hot water pools for about an hour, then having our skin scrubbed and massaged, we oozed back to our hotel and slept soundly.

After doing our laundry at the hotel, we spent our final afternoon in Busan at the Jagalchi Fish Market wandering among the imagevast conglomeration of stalls where all sorts of fresh bounty from the sea, much of it completely unidentifiable though purportedly edible, is unloaded from fishing boats, stored alive in tanks or cleaned and prepared for cooking (or eaten raw), and sold. We met two of Lydia’s friends, Katie and Cody, for a delicious fresh seafood dinner cooked in scallop shells over a briquet fire in the center of our table. We took the KTX back to Seoul for our flight to Shanghai to begin our foray into China.

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