Friday, January 30, 2009

The Lunar New Year

This is a really touristy post (especially photographically), because it was a relatively touristy time in my life. You know what to do. Additionally, I went to great lengths to provide a Wikipedia link to each place that may be unfamiliar with the Western reader. There is a quiz at the end, so check each one out and take good notes. . .

From Saturday, January 24, to Tuesday, January 27, Korea observes the Lunar New Year, so there was no school on Tuesday or Monday. Or Sunday. Or Saturday. The holiday seems very centered around the family; most of my students reported that they went to their grandmother’s house or played with their cousins. My family is roughly six thousand miles from me, so fate sent me spinning into the arms of the next best thing: Adam Cole. In the last couple years, we’d maneuvered through Naked Time and residency with 316 at Bethel, so I figure we’re basically kin. Anywho, Adam invited me to accompany him to Gyeongju and Busan, both cities in southern Korea, to celebrate the 2009 Lunar New Year. Our itinerary made Saturday and Tuesday into travel days; Sunday would spent primarily in Gyeongju and Monday in Busan. The two cities are a mere forty-minute bus ride, two-hour scooter ride, or five-hour elephant ride from each other. Game on.

Our rendezvous point was Daejeon, which is a two-hour bus ride from Seoul (no elephant rides are offered, at least on Lunar New Year weekend) on any normal weekend. Adam lives in Boryeong, which I think isn’t far from Daejeon, so he was just a hop, skip, and a jump from where we needed to meet. He’d scored tickets for a train leaving for Gyeongju at 4:47 PM. I didn’t want to let him down, so I aimed for having a lengthy layover and got a bus ticket to leave Seoul at 11 AM.
8:15 AM: I wake up.
9:20 AM: I leave my apartment for the subway station, munching on chicken nuggets and enjoying the newly-fallen snow that blanketed the city.
10:30 AM: I arrive at the bus terminal.
10:56 AM: I board the wrong bus.
10:58 AM: I board the right bus.
11:00 AM: My bus departs from the bus terminal. Traffic is light. My spirits are high. The city and countryside are covered in snow; it reminds me of flat, rural Minnesota.
11:20 AM: Traffic gets heavy and becomes stop-and-go. I shrug and dive into my book.
12:45 PM: I start to worry; the bus is making poor, poor time.
2:30 PM: My anxiety has risen to heights unseen since finals week of my sophomore year in college. We have traveled what appears to be about a fifth of the way to Daejeon. The traffic is ridiculous. We are way out in the country and it is bumper to bumper. Everyone is leaving Seoul faster than ball players leave the Marlins following a championship year. I start paging through my South Korea guide book to see what there is to do in Daejeon on Lunar New Year weekend.
2:45 PM: We FINALLY start moving with some speed. Our driver breaks the sound barrier. I start to relax again, thinking that maybe I will make the 4:47 train.
3:30 PM: The bus makes a twenty-minute pit stop for a bathroom/French fry break. My blood boils. I don’t get off the bus in an effort to will everyone to hurry up and get back on.
4:20 PM: We arrive at the bus terminal in Daejeon.
4:22 PM: I get in a cab and we plummet into rush hour traffic.
4:36 PM: The cab driver, sensing the urgency of the situation, gestures a route that I could take on foot to the station. I exit his taxi and break into a sprint.
4:38 PM: I get to the train station! Adam doesn’t answer his phone. I curse him audibly.
4:41 PM: I run into Adam Cole.
4:46 PM: We board our train
4:47 PM: We’re off! The sweat hadn’t even dried on my skin. Six minutes might be a larger margin than some of you are used to (Mom), but I was disgusted. I was on that bus for five hours and twenty minutes.
Adam and I didn’t even have seats next to each other, but these things happen. We arrived in Gyeongju and find the lovely Commodore Hotel, which appears much more expensive than it is (nice find, A.C.!). We eat some fried chicken and fall asleep.

Sunday we struck out at 7:30 AM for Tumuli Park, which, if you ever happen to be in the area, is early enough to avoid paying for a ticket into the park. The place is nice; it is mostly tombs, which, to the untrained eye, appear to be large mounds of grass. Here are some pictures of us desecrating said tombs (he did it first, I swear!), and then some of the place in general:

Next was the Cheomseongdae Observatory. Yup:

And then (duh) McDonald’s for breakfast…at least for one of us. I had not forgotten my blood oath to McCelibacy. I scored some donuts from a nearby (and equally corporate and evil, as far as I can tell) Tous les Jours. One of these donuts had curry filling. Sigh:

We moved on to the Gyeongju National Museum. It was fine. There were multiple buildings, including a main gallery, an art hall, and an Anapji Pond exhibit. And a giant bell:

The Bulguksa Temple drew the next bid. There were multiple actual temple buildings at this Buddhist complex; most of them were basically the same but somewhat intriguing nonetheless. The interior of each temple building was extravagantly decorated and had different golden Buddha and bodhisattva statues, but they all also had signs that said “No Cameras,” so. I still did what photographic damage that I could (by that I mean I was in some of the pictures) without stepping on any toes:

We grabbed a cab and headed to Anapji Pond. It was okay. We saw some other Caucasians there. We didn’t talk to them, and we didn’t talk about them. But we both knew. I think this pond would be a lot sweeter in the summer. As Adam and I left, we saw a bunch of kids horsing around on these tiny sleds on this icy body of water that looked like it was about to break through, so:

The next hour and a half (a conservative guess?) was spent looking for a place to eat. Unlike Jubilee Foods, many Korean restaurants closed up shop for the New Year celebration, so that kinda stunk. We found a place after a while, and Adam showed me how to say a bunch of stuff in Korean. Then we went and got on the bus for Busan. We got off the bus and wandered from the bus station to the subway tracks to some stop in the middle of the city. No one we asked knew where the Busan Central Hotel was (or maybe they did and we couldn’t hurtle the language barrier), but Adam, in a fit of genius, remembered that on the hotel’s website, the building had had a giant Hite advertisement at its peak. So we stumbled upon it that way, checked in, got some food, perused around the neighborhood a little, and hit the hay.

Monday morning took us to: the beach! Busan has a bunch of them, I guess. We made a pit stop at Starbucks (we found a Caribou Coffee but it was c.l.o.s.e.d.) for blueberry muffins and just sat inside and looked out on the beach. For some reason I felt really good while we were there, like I was excited about being there at that moment and about being in South Korea in general and about whatever is in the future for me. Don’t know why. After a while we went down to the shoreline, where it was still winter, and enjoyed more of the lovely view:

After Adam and I grew weary of the sand, salt, and seagulls, we relocated to some downtown location, grabbed some sandwiches, walked around, and eventually ended up at the Busan Tower. Dear reader, I have a confession. I’ve discovered that I have a ruthless obsession for high places. Recall back a few posts to the Seoul Tower adventure. Recall even further back to trips up places like Victoria Peak and the Sears Tower. I really like being able to see a long way. Call me crazy. All that being said, I took a hundred pictures:

We base-jumped down and took a taxi to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, which is a memorial for United Nations expatriates who died in the Korean War; there are 2,300 or so, I believe. The cemetery and memorial is fairly large. It was very brown at this point in the year, but I imagine that is really pretty during the summer. Even so, the place is very well done; everything is very well taken care of and tastefully constructed. There is a wall with the names of all the soldiers who died in the Korean War; there are over 30,000 from the U.S. there (I think?). The wall is in black marble, very much like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. I discovered KIA veterans who had had the same last names as people I’d known in Iowa, and I’m not talking about any Smith’s, Johnson’s, or Jones’s. It was pretty sobering.

We took it easy for a while after that, played some World of Warcraft, sat at the hotel, etc. Adam and I then devoured a delicious steak dinner at Bennigan’s and explored the Lunar New Year nightlife until the wee hours of the night. Our train left at 6:50 AM, and we didn’t arrive back at our hotel until about 4:15 AM, so one of us decided to take a nap (not recommended) and the other decided to take a shower and read (not that great of an idea, either) until it was time to go catch the train. We scored the train, arrived back in Daejeon, supped, and parted ways. Hopefully I will see Mr. Cole again before he leaves South Korea at the end of March, but if I do not, I am glad we got to see the sights together. He is a man with a very good head on his shoulders: he has no fear of the Korean language (or how little we knew of it), Korean taxi drivers, Korean Dunkin’ Donuts workers, or Korean hotel receptionists. Hats off to you, sir. Hats off to you.

The weekend was sweet; however, it was, like most trips, a period of time spent outside of my comfort zone. Parading through these unknown cities, riding an unfamiliar subway, and having little to no sense of direction at any one time were all characteristics of my Lunar New Year weekend. Thus, as my bus rolled back into the second biggest city in the world on Tuesday afternoon, I realized I was returning to familiar territory. I knew where I’d go when I got off the bus, I knew what subway line to get on, I knew how to act when smashed together with a bunch of Koreans in a small train car. I think that these are signs that Seoul is starting to feel more and more…dare I say?... like home. It puts things in perspective. When I got to South Korea, I thought about how I’d felt out of place in north Minneapolis, where the other respectable residents of Walden Hall and I were the only white people on our block and I felt intimidated going to the store or to the gas station. But now, having been not only the sole (no pun intended?) white person but also the only English speaker in the visual vicinity many, many times, I think I will appreciate any places in which I can at least communicate with everyone. I might feel out of my comfort zone in one place, but after getting way further out of it in another, I can appreciate the subtle familiarities of different places that I’ve gotten much more acclimated with.

Sorry to get at all philosophical. Hopefully your Lunar New Year, wherever it was, was as happy as mine was.