Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Little Visit to the Countryside...

Today we headed out of the city and into the mountains for a little school staff excursion. Two teachers are leaving to return to America next week, and the school's tradition is to treat them to a great meal with the full staff. This time, they decided also to have a picnic and head out of the city for a little fun.

Unfortunately, it's been raining since last night, so the picnic and rumored hiking (the school's owner is a pretty active mountaineer), was off. But what we did get was still great company, great food, and a beautiful little excursion into the hilly rural Korea.

The restaurant we went to was nearly 2 hours outside of Pohang, so we made a few short stops along the way. The first was at a rest station on the seaside in an area that is apparently very well known for their delicious crab. It's been windy and rainy all day, so as you can see, the waves were quite large...

I was of course expecting a grand restaurant hall, or something, since we traveled hours to get there, but in fact, the place we stopped for lunch was more akin to an actual hole in the wall. Not that it was dingy or dirty, but it was very out of the way and inconspicuous; I didn't even realize we had arrived at the place when the car stopped.

But, as with previous dinners with work, the food did not disappoint. We drank fresh sparkling spring water and apple wine that, according to our Korean coworkers, "keeps you young forever". Then came the food; what a feast! First was chicken bulgogi patties and sesame salad, then grilled chicken wings, then a feast of banchan, and then a delicious chicken soup. The food and drink just kept coming! Ahh, it was all so delicious, definitely worth a drive out of the city.

Rich and two of our coworkers chomping on the chicken bulgogi and lettuce wraps

Banchan Feast!

Korean Chicken Soup... why yes, that is a whole chicken leg in the bowl...

Claire Teacher and I (isn't she just gorgeous?!)

On our way back to Pohang, we stopped at a little picnic area to stretch our legs, skip some rocks, and get some more pics.

Katie Teacher, we'll miss you!

The whole Kids Club gang...

Ahh... what a great little adventure for a Saturday! Now we're off to some serious chillaxing for the rest of the weekend. Ciao!

Rich's Birthday and a 5k

Last weekend, we celebrated Rich's first birthday abroad! The teachers at school were nice enough to buy Rich a cake on Friday too, and got just what he wanted: a Baskin Robbins ice cream cake. They all packed into the director's office in total darkness and surprised him with the beautiful cake topped with candles and a very heartfelt card from the Korean staff. It was very very sweet.

That weekend, we did some barbecuing on the roof of our building and cooked up some galbi and sam gap sal on the grill with friends; some new, some old. Afterwards, we headed out to a Pohang Steelers game and it was an exciting one. The Steelers are now in the top 3 in the country, and we were playing one of our greatest rivals. We were down 0-2 in the first half, but managed to win 4-3 in the end, what an exciting second half it was! People were screaming and cheering and hundreds of Steelers flags were flying proudly.

The starters before the game, waving to the fans...

After the game, we headed home to rest, because the next day we were scheduled to run a... 5k!! That Friday, we were informed at work that the school had three available spots for people to run in the 2011 Pohang Beach marathon. It is a huge event that many people come here to participate in, and this year, there would be 10,000 other runners with us. We of course agreed, grabbed our race packets, and headed out.

That morning we left for the race area at 8am, and it was already sweltering hot and very, very sunny. The race started waaay too long after we got there, we didn't even start running until close to 10! But despite that, it was great. Despite the sun, the heat, the crowded race loop, it was all amazing. It was my first 5k race ever, and finishing was really emotional and filled me full of pride. I wasn't sure I could do it, but Rich and I did it strong and finished really well.

After the race we were treated to lots of kimchi, gimbap, roasted duck, and rice wine. Apparently, Koreans, after they finish a race or something else really physically exhausting, they eat and drink their little hearts out. And I am more than happy to follow THAT tradition!

Rich and I pre-race
Me and a few friends, after the race. We all got medals for participating, isn't that cute?!

Now we're looking for more races to do around Korea and looking to train for longer races too. We've started running in the mornings before work, since 1. it's really the only time we can and 2. with the heat of the summer coming in full swing now, it's the only time the temp is right for comfortable running. We'll definitely keep you updated on running in Korea, and any more races we do in the future!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Seoul: Day 2

We moseyed out of bed on our second day in Seoul and had a leisurely walk in the neighborhood around our hostel. It was near the Ewha Women's College, so there were plenty of cafes and shops to check out in the many small streets. We even got some delicious strawberry smoothies from a street vendor. Just pure strawberries, ice, and milk. Delish!

Next we headed over to the Korean War Memorial, which is across the city from where we were staying. However, it was only about a 15 minute ride on the train! Many people had recommended this museum to us, so we decided to check it out. When we first got onto street level, thought, we couldn't find it, even though we had exited at the designated spot. But once we were pointed in the right direction, thanks to a friendly barista, we found that the whole complex was huge, just inconspicuous! Not only was there a large outdoor Korean War memorial, it was also the location of South Korea's intelligence compound, an outdoor exhibition of global fighter jets and boats, and a very impressive museum.

the entrance to the memorial grounds

One of the first monuments that greets visitors as they enter the memorial grounds is a large dome structure that looks as if it has a large crack across the entire middle. The bottom is carved out so that you can walk inside the dome, and above the entrance is stained glass. On top of the dome stand two soldiers, embracing one another. It was very moving in person, so sorry for the terrible description...

the soldiers embrace

inside the dome you can see the sun come through the stained glass

Even before entering the museum, we spent nearly an hour outside, looking at the monuments and checking out all the retired planes. They had even opened some of them up to the public so you could climb into them and see the controls, look out the windows, and experience the claustrophobia and stuffiness these soldiers dealt with.

another memorial I believe honoring fallen soldiers during the Korean War

close-up of the statues at the base of the monument

huge warship and jet outside the museum

we got this close!

finally... the entrance

We easily spent three or four hours in the museum, learning about everything from ancient wars between the dynasties up to the most recent war in Korea, and learning so much history that I have been entirely ignorant of my entire life. Korea through its history has seen so much war and hardship, but now it's flourishing in its own right. This hardship has translated to steadfast spirits and a "waste not" attitude that you have to admire in the people here. What an amazing site in Korea, and definitely one everyone should see to truly understand the context in which Korea exists and grows.

After we left the museum we were hungry and museum-ed out, so we decided to head over to Itaewon. Itaewon is generally considered the foreigner district and is an oddity that's difficult to describe. It borders the largest U.S. military base in the country, Yongsan Garrison, so there are many, many U.S. soldiers and their families relaxing and drinking in the many 'foreigner bars'. There also is a very 'international' feel as you wander down the streets. There seem to be separate streets for Middle Easterners, Africans, etc., and their cuisines are well represented in these areas. Itaewon is also well known for problems with prostitution and brothels, one of the most well known areas being 'hooker hill'. The irony is that it's located right next door to the only mosque in Korea. While this area was interesting and full of odd juxtapositions, it wasn't my favorite site in Seoul. It felt too tourist-y and hokey for my tastes, and Rich agreed.

We were jonesing for some Mexican food though, so we wandered into a place called Poncho's, if I remember correctly. The food was decent and expensive, but their margaritas were quite good. As we waddled out of the restaurant, filled to the brim with guacamole and enchiladas, the sun was going down. We decided to head over to another shopping district in the city that we'd heard is very active at night, called Dongdaemun. This area has 26 malls, 30,000 specialty stores, and 50,000 manufacturers, all packed within ten blocks of space (thanks again Wiki). To say it was overwhelming would be an understatement. One would think that Seoul-itans never stop shopping, based on how many malls and markets there are in this city. And, at 9:30 pm, every store was still packed to the brim!

the entrance to Dongdaemun

After wandering for a few hours in and out of shops, we headed back to Ewha to our hostel. It was a long day on our feet, and we were exhausted. The next day we wandered for a few hours and then hopped a bus back to Pohang and out of the Seoul insanity. Yet, for how active, ahem, hyperactive, this city is, it felt very manageable and easy to get around. Nearly everyone we met in shops and restaurants spoke English and almost every sign was in English as well as Korean. Prices also weren't as high as we'd expected for a major city, and everyone was generally, well, nice. Seoul is definitely a city we'll be visiting again and one of the most unique and mind-blowing placed I've ever seen.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Seoul: Day 1

Last weekend we had a long weekend and so finally made it to the capital city of South Korea, Seoul. It was a short 4 hour bus drive away and aaabsolutely worth it! Seoul is like nothing I've seen before, anywhere in the world. It pulses with life every moment of the day. People everywhere, lights, sounds, food, smells; this is the city that never sleeps. Whether you're out all night at the pulsing clubs or shopping til' you drop, there's never a lack of things to do.

We arrived in Seoul Saturday afternoon, so had the whole day to explore and walk around. The first thing to tackle was the subway system. I'm always a little nervous about a new public transit system, since I've had experiences where info is hard to find, buses or trains are sporadic, and the system is just not... smooth. Not so with Seoul's subway. It was absolutely fantastic. Everything is in Korean, Chinese, and English, and there are gigantic digital interactive maps at every station. Never once did we get lost or turned around. Oh, and did I mention that it's only $.90?

The divine subway

Our first destination, after settling into our hostel, was Hongik University, or Hongdae. This is a neighborhood surrounding the university with a plethora of shops, restaurants, and cafes. We spent hours just wandering the streets and moseying into any store that caught our fancy. Everything in this area had so much character: the buildings were older, the streets meandering, the colors muted. We stumbled upon a yarn shop, beautiful handmade jewelry, fruit stands, and get this... a TACO stand! I was wary of this, of course, but we decided to buy just one taco. It. Was. Amazing. So authentic, so perfectly cooked, and topped with grilled cheese and cilantro! I wanted to stand there all day and just eat these amazing tacos. But alas, there was more to see... We wandered into a music festival a bit later and experienced our first Korean rap. It's best described as just... odd. Also found in Hongdae: models selling... something?, graffiti, and a rasta cafe...

taco stand chef

me devouring said taco

I (heart) graffiti

Korean rapper... nice jersey

Could these models look any more similar?!

Rastaman vibrations

When dusk hit, we headed across the city to an area called Myeongdong, one of the major financial and commercial districts in Seoul. In fact, in terms of floorspace rent, it's one of the most expensive commercial areas in the world! (thanks Wiki) After visiting, I can see why. At night, the shopping doesn't taper off, but seems to increase! There were so many people in the streets, we had to link arms and squeeze through in order not to lose each other in the crowd. There are a number of upscale shopping centers here, as well as a Louis Vuitton, Coach, Prada, Chanel, etc. On street level, there countless marketeers selling clothes, bags, and about any knock-off you could imagine. This is also where we found the H&M as well as Forever 21. That night we headed to a Nepalese-Indian restaurant for some curry, tandoori chicken, and mango lassis before heading over to to Cheonggyecheon, a small stream in the middle of the city.

This picture does not even begin to describe the Myeongdong madness. This is one small street out of hundreds in the area, and isn't even the major area of the district.

Here's one of the many street vendors in the area selling grilled squid, a popular light snack.

Where Cheonggyecheon stands now there used to be a gigantic highway. However, when the city underwent a huge beautification campaign, this area was remade into a public park and walking area. Across the river have been built many small bridges. At night, it's a very popular destination for both young couples as well as families, Koreans and foreigners alike. At the end of the walkway, there is also a small waterfall that is illuminated at night. This is where we ended out night of exploring before retiring to our hostel. What a beautiful night it was!

Uncommon calm in Seoul

The beautiful waterfall and the spindle sculpture called "The Spring" seen behind it, designed by Claes Oldenberg, who also designed the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Stay tuned for day 2!

Galbi at home: Could it get any better?

This is by far one of my favorite meals in Korea, and it's amazingly simple... Fresh grilled meat, peppers, and banchan. It's Korean barbecue and these restaurants are everywhere. In fact, there are two just down the street from us. They generally offer pork and beef, while other places specialize in duck. You can order the meat per 100g generally and it's offered either marinated or not.

However, because of the large amount of meat involved, it's often one of the more expensive meals offered here, so we decided to try it at home, on our own. I was given a grill pan that i just place on the gas stovetop, and we've got plenty of windows, so we figured it would be alright.

We started by buying the meat at our local grocery store, and bought about 250g which came up to about $7.50. However, next time I think we'd buy more like 350g or 400g. Next we just heated up the grill pan and threw the meat, peppers, and sliced garlic on top. Five minutes on each side for these babies and we were done!

I also made some sesame rice balls (middle) to eat with this, and served some ssamjang (the red stuff) as well, which is a garlicky fermented red pepper paste. Deelicious. Also, as is traditional, we ate our galbi in lettuce and sesame leaves. The lettuce leaves give a great crunch and freshness to the meal and the sesame leaves are much softer and very fragrant. They're a great pair to the juicy grilled meat.

It didn't take long for us to devour our dinner....

Which is why i think next time we'll make more. But I was stunned at how easy this is to do at home and definitely something we'll be doing more often! Ah, the simplicity and delicious flavors of Korean cooking....

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