Monday, December 20, 2010

Weekend travels

As of today I have been in Korea for exactly one month. In some ways it feels as though I've been here much longer but I think that's common when so many new things happen in such a short time. I'm still enjoying myself and trying to keep busy because I've heard that these next couple months of being away can be the hardest and considering that they happen to coincide with the holidays, well, I can believe it.

So this weekend I got up and out. On Saturday I tagged along with Traci and a friend of hers to Yongsan in search of a transformer. Yongsan is home to a massive Electronics Market so basically this was the best bet. We ended up finding one in I'Park Mall, which consists of several floors of shopping, restaurants, a movie theater and more, that's located above and around Yongsan Station itself. I'm pretty sure that there are also electronics shops all over the surrounding areas outside the subway station.
Basically this entire floor was rows upon rows of people selling cameras, phones, GPS's, etc. We poked around on a few other floors including one where they had a wedding going on.
It was the weirdest thing. They didn't have the entrance blocked off or anything and there was no one stopping me from taking a picture. It was like a drive-thru wedding. I felt like maybe taking a picture would be an invasion of privacy but then again they were getting married in a mall with the doors wide open...
There were also these "Bride Rooms" set up for picture taking. I guess they just shoot from one wedding to another? Or maybe they have the bride dress up for pictures one day and come back to get hitched another? Mystery.

After Yongsan we hopped back on the subway to head to Namsan Tower. As we were walking in the subway I saw Dolores Umbridge's doppelgänger:
I wish this shot was closer but she was walking fast and I was rushing to pull out my camera because I had to have a picture of this. I half expected her to start nailing Educational Decrees to the wall. Ah, it's the little things in life that brighten my days.

Outside the subway we got on a bus that took us up the mountain to the parking lot just under the tower (if you're in Korea and interested in checking out Namsan Tower you can find all the necessary info here).
From there we walked up a road to the plaza area at the base of the tower. I snapped this along the way.
From the base.
Here is the 411 on the tower as provided by my bff Wikipedia:
"N Seoul Tower is a communication and observation tower located in Namsan Mountain, central Seoul, South Korea. Built in 1969, and opened to the public in 1980, the tower has been a symbol of Seoul and measures 236.7 m (777 ft) in height (from the base) and tops out at 479.7 m (1,574 ft) above sea level. It has also been known as the Namsan Tower or Seoul Tower. After the tower's original owner merged with the CJ Corporation, it was renamed the N Seoul Tower (official name CJ Seoul Tower)"
These bee hive looking things are the last in a series of beacons which were lit to warn of an enemy invasion during the Joseon period. All I could think of when I saw these was the "Lighting of the Beacons" sequence in Lord of the Rings, which is possibly my favorite minute and forty-three seconds in movie history. Needless to say I thought these were awesome. The view was nothing to sneeze at either.

After looking around the plaza we walked around the lower observation decks. The view was okay though hindered a bit by the haze from fog and smog. Really the draw of these lower decks though are the "Locks of Love":
Namsan Tower is a popular stop for couples. I could tell right away that we were on the right bus when we were heading there because there were at least four or five couples on it too. The idea is to write a message on a lock with your sweetheart, attach it to the fence, and throw away the key as a symbol of your always being together (though apparently they discourage actually chucking the key over the fence in case it hits someone). I like silly romantic stuff like this and it was beautiful to see so many messages written in different languages but essentially all expressing the same things.
It was pretty chilly up there on Saturday so we bought tickets to go up the tower to the 360 degrees observation deck. All the windows were labeled with whichever part of the world you could get to from that direction.
 Another wall of love-doveyness.
It wasn't the best day for picture taking but I expect I'll be coming back here sometime next summer and will get some shots with the trees all filled in. There's a cable car that can take you up and down the mountain but we walked down a huge flight of stairs to the bottom and there were some really nice views along the way. On our way back to the subway we bumped into some other CDI teachers from a different branch, two of whom were in my training session a couple weeks ago. I'd seen another fellow trainee earlier in line while waiting to go up the tower so it was kind of crazy. Small country I guess!

So that was Saturday and then yesterday, Sunday, was my birthday. I always feel strangely special on my birthday, like I've taken a dose of Felix Felicis or that the universe is giving a little nod in my direction like, "Oh hey this is the day you came into the world, isn't it? Have a good one kid". I can't explain it but I just feel good on my birthday and yesterday was no different.

I kept things pretty low key because although everyone I've met here so far is great, I would have felt a bit silly asking people I've known just shy of a month to hang out with me because it's my birthday. So I decided to have a day to myself just doing whatever my newly 23-year-old heart desired.

That ended up being a trip to the National Museum of Korea. I headed back to Yongsan, this time to Ichon Station (more than a 90 minute trip) and when you take exit 2 out of the subway and walk straight ahead you can't miss it.
Seoul recently hosted the G20 Summit, literally the week before I came here in November. The welcome reception was held at the National Museum so they still had this area set up where the world leaders posed for pictures. It's slightly cut off on the right but they had a board with all those pictures and this one little boy from the US who looked to be visiting with his family ran over, saw the picture of Obama, and was all, "MOM! DAD! I FOUND AMERICA!". Oh kids.
I decided that I'm in love with this museum. First of all admission to the permanent exhibition hall is free. What better way to encourage people to learn about the history of their culture than by making it easily available to anyone who is interested. There is a charge for the special exhibitions but there is so much available inside the permanent exhibits that you still walk away having experienced a lot.

Also it's well designed. I hate going to a museum and after finishing with one room having to back track and figure out which room I should head to next. The pamphlet I scooped up at the start (available in four languages including English) suggested exactly where to begin so I would be following the items in chronological order.

They have so many amazing pieces and luckily everything is labeled in English in addition to Korean.
Many of the items, such as this crown of Silla pictured below, are designated National Treasures of Korea. These refer to "a numbered set of tangible treasures, artifacts, sites, and buildings which are recognized by South Korea as having exceptional artistic, cultural and historical value".
Ten-Story Pagoda.
Oh Korea you were way ahead of the game, why did you have to change!
Apparently this Taegeukgi was owned by William Arthur Noble who was an American missionary in Korea around the turn of the century. There were a lot of school kids who appeared to be on field trips to the museum (poor kids go to school all damn day and then have to have field trips on Sundays) and as I was taking pictures of the flags they came running over and kept saying, "Taegeukgi! Taeeeegukgiii" in a singsong way. I don't know what that's about, I guess they really love their flag.

I spent nearly two hours there and only made it through the first floor. There are two more floors plus a whole outdoor exhibits area with pagodas and lanterns and other things. The great thing about the free admission means I can go back anytime. I didn't feel like I had to get my money's worth by trucking through the other floors. I'm looking forward to heading back in the nicer weather or to catch one of the special exhibits. I absolutely encourage people to check this place out, it's completely worth a visit.

My next stop was Itaewon, a district in Yongsan.
Itaewon is known for having lots of shops and restaurants that cater to foreigners and westerners looking for clothing or shoes will probably have better luck finding something in their size here. Itaewon is close to Yongsan Garrison which is the US military base in Seoul so naturally US soldiers end up spending a lot of time in that area.
My reason for heading to Itaewon was strictly literary in nature:
What a glorious sight! Books! In English!
What The Book? is a new and used English book store, and if I'm not mistaken the largest of its kind in Korea. I heard about this place forever ago and knew that it would be somewhere I'd be hitting up early on. I only brought a couple books with me from home so I wanted to find a few more to tide me over for a while. I ended up with Stephen King's Everything's Eventual, the only volume of his short stories I haven't read yet, and Wuthering Heights which I've never cracked open either. The great thing about this store is that though it can only stock so many books at once, you can order books through them and pick them up there. I know I'll be heading here every now and again.

I wasn't really interested in doing any other kind of shopping in Itaewon yesterday so after What the Book? I just headed home. I grabbed a pizza a couple blocks from my apartments and ate it before heading back out to get a couple things at the grocery store and to buy myself a cake. I'm a firm believer in having cake on one's birthday so I went to the Paris Baguette bakery around the corner and got myself a wee chocolate cake.

On the way back to my apartment I spotted a desk that someone had put out with the garbage. Pretty much all the teachers here have furnished their apartments by dumpster diving. Of course a lot of stuff will be crap but there are some nice items that people toss out. So I wandered over to the desk, gave it a once over, lifted it to see how heavy it was, and decided it would be awfully nice to not have to sit on the floor for meals anymore.

It was a little awkward but I managed to get it to the main doors then pushed it down the hall to the elevator. Luckily it fit easily and then I half pushed, half lifted it out and down the hallway to my apartment and dragged it inside. It had rained a little at some point so the top was soggy but I wiped it down and cleaned it up and TA-DA!
It's so nice to have somewhere comfortable to eat and be at my computer now. I'd bought that cushion you see on the chair to make the floor a little more bearable but this is a much happier alternative. It makes the place feel all the more "mine" now that I've added something myself. A decent birthday present to myself if I do say.

After the desk was all spiffed up I got out my cake,
poured myself a glass of milk and cut a nice big piece. Or as big a piece as you can cut when the cake is no wider than your hand.
Ringing in a new year of my life while sitting at a garbage-bound desk in a foreign country with chocolate cake and Love Actually may have been a bit unconventional but what can I say, I always have preferred chocolate over vanilla.

Trivia of the Day: East Asian age reckoning is a concept and practice that originated in China and is used in East Asian cultures. Newborns start at one year old, and each passing of a Lunar New Year, rather than the birthday, adds one year to the person's age.

In Korea, the 100th-day anniversary of a baby is called baegil (백일), which literally means "a hundred days" in Korean, and is given a special celebration, marking the survival of what was once a period of high infant mortality. The first anniversary of birth named dol (돌) is likewise celebrated, and given even greater significance. Koreans celebrate their birthdays, even though every Korean gains one year on New Year's Day. Because the first year comes at birth and the second on the first day of the lunar New Year, a child born, for example, on December 29 (of the lunar calendar) will reach two years of age on Seollal (Korean New Year) , when they are only days old in western reckoning. For official government uses, documents, and legal procedures, the Western age system is used. Regulations regarding age limits on alcohol and tobacco use, as well as the age of consent, are all based on the Western system.


  1. Oh Carly, my little dumpster-diver, I taught you well! I'm so proud.

    Happy 23rd Birthday!

  2. Haha I knew you would appreciate my being so enterprising. I only wish it were actually wood and not plastic, it could really use a couple coats of stain!

    Thanks for the birthday wishes :)

  3. Yeah the pagoda is pretty awesome. There's a lot of details on each level, like lions or people carved into it, but it's hard to see from a distance. When I finally get a flickr account going I'll put more pics up!