Saturday, January 30, 2016

Korea Adventures part 2

This week deserves its own post as I took way way too many photos and I decided not to consolidate most of them :)

Week 4
Sokcho | Seoraksan | Hongcheon

It was hard waking up that Saturday morning. I wanted to get to the Express Bus Terminal early just in case I couldn't figure out where things were; I was forewarned that it was a large terminal. I got to the terminal with 15 minutes to spare and found the boarding gate to Sokcho with the help of a friendly local. I showed the bus driver my printed itinerary and he gave the thumbs up! I breathed a sigh of relief and made myself comfortable on the bus. Just before departure though, a young bus conductor started checking everyone's tickets and said mine was invalid................................... NOOOOOOOOooooOOOOOO!!! What do you mean invalid?! He told me I had to get a legit one printed at the ticketing counter. I bolted for it, but the lady said it was 2 minutes past departure time so she couldn't issue a proper ticket. After much persuasion, and giving the bus conductor Ms Jenny's number since she made the payment, he finally let me board the bus... Crisis averted...

The bus ride took 4 hours, arriving in Sokcho at noon. From the Sokcho Intercity Bus Terminal, I caught a local bus to the House Hostel; base bus fares were 1200won. I missed the stop the first time, but I got there eventually! The owner of the House Hostel, Mr Yoo, deserves a shout out cause he really knew how to make people feel welcome. He provided lots of info about tourist hotspots, good restaurants nearby, bus info for travelling to Seoraksan, everything you needed to know about the area! I left my luggage for them to look after, took my camera bag, and took the bus to Seoraksan straight away.

Small cosy room at the House Hostel

My colleagues weren't kidding when they said this week was peak season for autumn leaves viewing, the place was PACKED! This was only one of the staring points to reach the ranges. It was certainly the most accessible and the most popular spot. They had delicious chicken skewers and steamed corn on the cob too Yuummm...!

I had a few hiking options but very little time. I wanted to catch the bus back to Sokcho before it got dark, which gave me slightly less than 4 hours. Ulsanbawi and Geumganggul were my options at that point but I decided to go with Ulsanbawi as I wanted to see the rocky formations at its summit. I was fit enough not to feel too exhausted from the hike and reached the summit in 2 hours, even with all the constant stopping to take photos!

 Entrance to Seorak National Park

 Patiently waiting at the side of the track until people have passed for scenic photos

 Most of the track followed a small stream

 Stone stacks

 View from Heundeulbawi (Shaking Rock) - a sort of halfway point for the track

 Steel steps leading to the summit of Ulsanbawi from Shaking Rock

 At the summit!!

View of Sokcho from the summit of Ulsanbawi

Hann would have totally done the hike later just so he could watch sunset from the top but I didn't have a torch, or food, to sustain myself through the dark. The view in soft afternoon light was good enough for me. The hike down took me less than an hour! I practically ran down the steps and overtook huge groups of people at a time cause I was HUNGRY!

I got back to my room, showered, and found out I had roommates! They were a mother-daughter duo who came to conduct an arts and crafts workshop for the weekend. Mini was my age, she spoke very little English but we were able to communicate using Google translate (thank you Google!). I had to excuse myself for dinner half way through our conversation when my stomach growled... She laughed and told me we could continue our conversation later.

I whipped out the map that Mr Yoo showed me when I first arrived and decided to go for hotpot. I wanted something soupy and hot after the hike. It was getting cold too!

 Very useful and informative map for someone hungry

I got to the restaurant and the waitress told me they had only one item on their menu, seafood hotpot for 18000won. Perfect! I made myself comfortable on the floor mat, and was quickly served the banchan with the hotpot following soon after.

Beautiful seafood hotpot with some surprises

It was only after taking a photo that I realised something was off. THERE WAS MOVEMENT IN THE SOUP! Specifically, the ABALONE WERE ALIVE!!! *I cried a little inside* The waitress saw my horrified/confused/reluctant face and came over to help. "This," she held up a squirming abalone, "you put IN." With that, she dunked the abalone into the hot soup. The other abalone, I had to dunk myself as she had already walked off. As I ate everything else, I hoped the abalone had a swift demise. I left them in the soup til last, just to make sure they were deader than dead before I fished them out.

Verdict: Clean tasty broth, large serving, great variety of seafood, freshest I've had in a while, beautifully cooked, and a dash of guilt for dunking the poor guys into hot soup.

Walking around Sokcho night market - Statue showing fishermen with their catch

The night ended with me and Mini having translated conversations and us exchanging home addresses to keep in touch in the future. She's already sent me a Christmas card she made herself!!

I had an early night as I wanted to catch sunrise at Seoraksan. I was such a disappointment to myself. I missed the sunrise while on the bus to the National Park (fail). It was much much quieter than the previous day and it felt like I had the park to myself :D I decided to take a short trail to the Biryeong falls.
 Wood pecker and Asian Magpie

 Autumn foliage

 Quiet track all to myself

And encountered mini chipmunks along the way!! THEY ARE SO CUTE!

Another chipmunk!! 

Hanging bridge

 Beautifully maintained hiking trails

The Biryeong falls viewing platform which was under construction at the time

I wished I could stay at the National Park for longer, but I wanted to see the rest of Sokcho. Besides, the park was getting crowded again. The bus took me back to town where I had a massive bowl of Kalguksu for lunch (scrumptious!)

It was a massive bowl - I sadly was not able to finish it D:

I walked from the lighthouse to the beach and back to the House Hostel in the arvo. There is no way I would let myself miss the bus home!

 Shellfish market next to the dock

 Fauna in the rock pools at the beach

 Adorable wall art

 After a long 4 hour trip home, I dumped all my sweaty clothes into the washing machine and made way for bedtime.

Back in the office, my colleagues were very keen to know if I managed to catch the autumn leaves in Seoraksan and were asking to see photos. Autumn viewing or 'danpung' as they call it, is a yearly affair. They were kind of jealous not to have had that chance that weekend :P

Having said that though, the team had organised an overnight-getaway workshop in Hongcheon on the Thursday and Friday! They told me they didn't have the chance last year as the timing was just terrible for everyone. Again, I was incredibly lucky to be IN Korea, with THIS particular team, at THAT particular time. How did a graduate all the way from Australia get to work and hang out with all these cool people.

It was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about everyone in the team and how they worked together, in a very relaxing environment to boot! When the discussions were done, we just sat next to the campfire and ate all night. There was heaps of meat and kimchi and ramyun *so delicious* I will admit that I was the first casualty of the night. I just didn't have the stamina that they did to eat through the night :3

 The chalet we were staying in for the night

The Hong River aka Hongcheon 

Korean BBQ at its finest! 

Another chance to enjoy the autumn leaves 

Maeuntang for breakfast

The next morning we went to a restaurant famous for their maeuntang (spicy fresh fish soup) before we headed back to Seoul.

Week 5
Cheonggyesan | More Korean BBQ

To be continued...

Saturday, January 2, 2016

5 years later - Korea Adventures part 1

As mentioned in the title, it had been five years since my last visit to South Korea. The first was mainly for my sister's wedding in Gwangju but we had the chance to travel to Jeju Island (stinking hot but beautiful island with awesome food), the lovely quaint village of Seoshin, an unnamed beach where we harvested lots of oysters, and Seoul for the last two days of our trip.

This time around, I'm here for work in the South Western side of Seoul so I decided to spend most of my time exploring the metropolitan area. The stay lasted 11 weeks so I was determined to make the most of it!

Week 1:
Yangpyeong-dong | Yeongdeungpo | Company

I arrived early on a Sunday morning at Incheon. I paid for a Korean sim card online and collected it at the airport because I need internet in my life. The HR director of my company came to pick me up and dropped me off at my residence in Yangpyeong-dong. They had organised a large studio room for me with all the necessary facilities (thank you washing machine). For the love of god; I got bright PINK bed sheets...

Lovely studio - I covered up the abominable bedsheets with the doona in this photo

I wasn't familiar with the area I was staying in so I decided to hop on a train to see where it would take me. Subway station was a mere 3 minutes' walk, got off the train after two stops cause it seemed hustly bustly enough for me to find food (Yeungdeungpo-market). I found a small fast food shop which served soondoobu jigae; that staved off my jet lag for a while.

Nourished for the afternoon, I walked some ways and saw the massive Times Square building. I needed some toiletries for the residence and was hoping to find a supermarket in there... E-mart was closed :( It was just one of those Sundays. But no matter, I found a small sundry shop on the way back to the subway station and bought all the necessaries.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw something that piqued my interest, Underground shopping centre. Rightio, let's investigate:


Jumpers and jackets heaven, and really cheap too! I later found out that this was one of two of the famous underground shopping areas in Seoul, the other was at the Gosok Express Bus Terminal. I knew I didn't pack nearly enough warm clothes from Melbourne for the duration of my stay. My reasoning was that nothing from down under would save me from the dry freezing winters in Seoul so I might as well invest in some heat tech after arriving.

Jetlag finally crept up on me late in the arvo, so I headed back to the studio, unpacked and cleaned up, then rested a bit before grabbing a quick bite at a japanese restaurant nearby. I expected the coming week to be pretty intense!

Nice and crispy tonkatsu before starting my work week

My HR director told me to meet him at the lobby of the residence at 7.30am the next morning, but I misunderstood it for the lobby at the company (heh... I'm an idiot). The first train ride to work was interesting, I had to transfer from line 5 to line 1 and the subway stations are so much bigger than the ones in Melbourne. I knew I was on the right platform, but there were four different trains leaving it and I didn't know which ones went to the company! Turns out I could board 3 of the 4, and I had missed all 3 while I was working out what to do (I'm an idiot...)

My first week, orientation week of sorts, was for me to get my bearings, meet and greet everyone, and learn the company history, procedures, and products. I was introduced to 3 teams closest to my line of work: R&D, overseas marketing, and product planning. At the end of the week, HR asked me to decide which of the first two teams I would like to work with. My head was saying R&D all the way since I'm from a mechanical engineering background, but for some reason, I decided with the overseas marketing team. I don't know what it would have been like working with the R&D team, but I don't regret my decision at all. The OMT is a small group of 11 people, and they are the nicest people I could ever hope to work with.

Interesting cultural differences at work:
- people tell you their age, marital status, and family status as part of the meet and greet
- more respect should be shown to colleagues older and/or of higher job seniority to you
- bonding between colleagues is very important
- they address seniors via their job title rather than by name
- everyone eats fast
- workers from the production line (mostly ladies) run to lunch (I still find this amusing)
- you should say yes to an offer of coffee/drinks
- you get lots of yummy snacks from colleagues (you should do your best to return the gesture)
- say your good mornings to your team when you arrive at work and your goodbyes before you leave

Cafeteria lunch - free, delicious, and healthy; we get brekky and dinner too!

Week 2:
Sinseol-dong | Sindorim

For my first jetlag-free weekend I decided to go antiques hunting. My first stop was at the Seoul Folk Flea market in Sinseol-dong. Two floors of vintage clothes, bags, bits and bobs, furniture, antiques, you name it! There were lots war memorabilia as well. I was interested mainly in smaller items, but if I had a shipping container bound for Melbourne I would have carted in all the gorgeous cabinets. I found myself 3 antique brass (bronze?) locks, an old cow bell, and a tiny wooden kettle sculpture. I later told my colleagues about the locks and they were like 'Pfft! I can pick those with a chopstick!'... BUT THEY ARE SO PRETTY!

There was so much more that I wanted to buy but some of the items were a tad pricey (vintage wire crate for AUD170). And I found some beautiful seashells that were unfortunately not for sale; they were the owner's private collection. Oops! I had a delicious eel set for lunch, and then hotteok for dessert.

 Too many goodies concentrated under one roof!

 Glorious food

A wrong turn trying to get back to the station took me to a shallow stream with lots of people hanging out under the bridge. It was actually really nice to relax there with the pigeons, a cool drink, and the calming sound of running water. Aaand I finally found an e-mart :P

Cheonggyecheon (?) if I am not mistaken

Small purchases - I love that cow bell at the top...

On Sunday, my sister was in town to visit her in-laws with Alice so I was very glad to see some familiar faces after a week on my own in a foreign country. We went to Pororo park within the Hyudai Department store in Sindorim for the kids to play in. I found myself a winter coat to help me survive the winter in the department store! On the way out, I stumbled upon a live orchestra performance in the park next to the department store. It was a good weekend!

Enjoyed the music for some good 45 minutes before it got dark and cold

My first official week of work was good, I got to meet everyone in the team at the weekly team meeting, I got my desk, and got assigned to some projects and research work. Lunch at the cafeteria was at 12pm everyday, then a nice relaxing 40 minute stroll next to the Anyang stream. Unless Mr Chan was with us, in which case the walk became more of a jog xD

Photos taken about 3 weeks apart - strolling in the shade of the trees along the Anyang stream

Week 3:
Gwanghwamun | Hongdae | Yeouido | Buam-dong | Namsan | Banpo Dae Gyo | Farewell Henrik

Another weekend, another flea market! Although I was disappointed to find that the Gwanghwamun market wasn't open that day. Having said that, the place was gorgeous. Stepping out from the subway, you are greeted with cityscape surrounded by mountains.

 King Sejong statue sitting proudly in the center of Gwanghwamun square

 Found this symbol in the Gwanghwamun subway station

I had a quick bite to eat then headed to Hongdae to check out its craft market. It's next to Hongik University, famously known as the best architecture and design institute in South Korea. I had to walk past the University to a small park where lots of small tables were set up with mostly students, selling their hand crafted products. And their wares were worth squeezing through a tough crowd for!

 Hongdae market

What I was most excited to see were artists painting portraits for 10000won (roughly AUD13). I had to get one done, I have always drawn other people but I have never had anyone else draw a caricature of me. I waited in line for 40 minutes to get mine done, and the artist didn't disappoint! The guy finished painting in less than 10 minutes.

 He's got some of my features but made me look way too Korean LOL

I decided to check out Yeouido Park to end the day. It was a well organised park, and it was nice and quiet in the forest paths.

Yeouido Park

The day after was a planned outing with Jungmin. He is also part of the graduate program of the company and was supposed to be in Australia but his assignment was interrupted because he had to be urgently sent to the US to complete another high priority project. He was back in Seoul for a week and promised to take me out on the weekend before he left for the US.

We visited Buam-dong, Namsan, and Banpo Dae Gyo. Beautiful scenery, great weather, great food, and great company. I was sorry to see him leave for the US so soon. But that means that when he goes back to Melbourne to complete his assignment, I will be there to take him around!

Buam-dong - quaint little village surrounded by hills - Jaha Sonmandoo restaurant for lunch

 Sanmotoonge Gallery & Cafe - decent coffee and exceptional cakes

 Easy hike up to the base of Namsan tower

View of sunset in a restaurant at the top of Namsan

 View near Banpo Dae Gyo

My third week at work started without a hitch. My colleagues were giving me suggestions on places to visit for the coming weekend and I asked about Seoraksan, which is about 3 hours East of Seoul on the other side of the peninsula. They gave me the thumbs up as it was probably the best time to catch the red and yellow autumn leaves. The problem was getting the bus tickets since it was peak season, and the buses would surely be full unless I booked a seat in advance. I either had to go to the bus terminal on the other side of the city to buy it first, or book it online from their all Korean website. Thank goodness for Mr Danny and Ms Jenny for getting me the ticket *yay* Next I booked a shared hostel room with the House Hostel in Sokcho recommended by my aunt and uncle who stayed there 5 years ago.

On the night before I left for Seoraksan, the company held a farewell party for Henrik, who was being relocated to Japan. He was the youngest member of the OMT and he was very very popular. There was lots of Korean BBQ, lots of drinks and games, and lots of food after all that. It was fun! Henrik was sorely missed after he left :'(

Week 4:
Sokcho | Seoraksan

To be continued in the next post...