Saturday, May 25, 2013

Seoul Day: Part 3

I knew this day was going to be long, but I didn't know it was going to be this long. After the disaster that was last weekend's attempted adventure, I wanted to do something worthwhile this weekend. So doing some searching, I read about a dance musical (a non-verbal show where the story is told through just dance and expressions) called The Ballerina Who Loved A B-Boy. Apparently it was a world-famous show that has had runs all around the world for years now. But the current run looked to be coming to a close at the end of this month. I wanted to get on that. So Naomi, Tim, Kira, and I decided to check that out on Saturday at the 5 PM show.

Where the day would start, however, was earlier at my Muay Thai class, which got out at 1:10 PM, leaving me with about 3 hours before I'd need to meet up with the others at the theatre. So I searched more for something I could see in that time. That's when I came across Seodaemun Prison, a museum/memorial of sorts about one of the most notorious prisons during the Japanese occupation of the early 20th century. It was pretty highly recommended. And, thus, I had my schedule.

I won't go into much detail on my Muay Thai class. I left for it as I usually do around 10:30 in the morning and got there just about noon. I was really worried it would be super intense like last week and I'd be miserable and non-functional all day. Fortunately, we had the same instructor as I had my first week of Muay Thai, and it was a pretty easy workout (in comparison). So that worry was soon pushed aside.

Seodaemun Prison

Then it was time to travel from Noksapyeong (where my gym is) to Dongnimmun, where the prison was. The trip was easy enough, and the location was really nice. It was a park area with lots of green, and the prison was just a short walk away. However, this is when my two enemies of the day really joined in: excessive walking and an insane mix of heat/humidity. These would slowly wear me (and the others) down as the day went on. (I was at the prison alone--the others were off doing their own things until we all would meet up at the theatre at 4:20-ish).

The prison was really interesting, though depressing. At first it was just a lot of historical information written on these poster/placard things on the walls. And for the most part, they had English translations, which was good. And there were also documents and artifacts in preservation boxes to look at. I started taking pictures of them all, but it eventually came to the point there were so many, I stopped. And I was worried this was going to be the majority of the tour, but thankfully it was just the beginning. The rest would take us to different areas where Korean revolutionaries were tortured or killed or other grisly things, as well as the actual prison cell areas, and many other buildings in the location.

It was pretty easy to get around, as there were signs pointing you in the right direction (you'd come out of an area and there'd be a sign with an arrow and "This Way"). Overall, the whole tour took me about 90 minutes, and it was worth seeing it at least once (not really something to come back to again, though). Here are some pictures I took of the whole place (As usual, I won't show all I took--there are too many. So I'll show a few here and put the rest on Facebook):

The Ballerina Who Loved A B-Boy

I still had quite some time to get from Dongnimmun to Seodaemun (which, strangely, is the area the play was in about 15 minutes away by train). I had about 40 minutes before I needed to meet up with the others, and it was only a 15-minute trip and maybe a 10 minute walk from the station to the theatre. I thought I'd maybe find something quick for food on the way, but there really wasn't anything. And it's not like I had the time, because it came to a point where the crowds became pretty heavy and made transferring stations time consuming.

When I got to Seodaemun, I was thrown off by the given map (which looked simple enough) because I didn't really see any of the landmarks it had pointed out. So I stopped at one point trying to look for an easier map. And after about 5 minutes, I looked across the street/crosswalk and saw the theatre right in front of me the whole time.

I got there at 4:15 and didn't see anyone. I was really thirsty and was out of water, so I decided to buy a Korean Cider (which is basically like Sprite), which sounded like a good idea at the time... except that it would prove to dry out my mouth and make me even thirstier as the day went on. Soon after I bumped into Kira, who then went to go buy herself a drink. And then Tim and Naomi came soon thereafter, having just been on the opposite side of the lobby where I couldn't see them.

The place was really cool. It looked neat, and it had a bunch of different show rooms for all sorts of fun shows. We stood around talking for a while before making our way upstairs and eventually to our seats (we had to stand and wait outside the theatre itself for just a few minutes). And for the "cheap" seats, they were excellent. It was a tiny little room, and we were no more than 4-5 rows from the stage. I sat at the aisle by the stairs, so I had an even better view without having to look over anybody.

And the show was fantastic. It was by far one of the most entertaining things I've ever seen. The dancing was phenomenal and had a mix of hip hop styles (b-boy, pop and lock, and even some animation). There was a ton of comedy and even some scary moments. The dancing was all amazing, and they did some insane things on that stage (and not just the b-boy stuff... at one point the main ballerina lays on her back and lifts one of her legs all the way back to where it's flat against the floor next to her head. The whole audience gave a collective shudder of pain and amazement at this point). And it very much wanted audience involvement. They would constantly break character to get us cheering or clapping, and there was a moment during a "nightmare" sequence where these nightmare creatures came crawling down the stairs next to us sneaking up and scaring people. It was so much fun.

The basic story is there's a b-boy crew who dances on the street right outside a ballet studio. One day the ballerinas are waiting nearby as crew dances and get caught up in a kind of ballet vs. b-boy dance battle. This goes on for a while before one guy in particular shows up, and it becomes clear one of the ballerinas in particular becomes a bit infatuated with him. Eventually, though the ballerinas are teased and kicked out. The main ballerina starts to dream about the main b-boy and how he could be her hero, and she wakes up and has difficulty getting back into her ballet routine. So she tries a little b-boy style and accidentally knocks herself unconscious. She then has a nightmare where all these masked creatures show up all freaky-like, and eventually the main b-boy shows up to save her. She tries to get close to him again in real life, but they make her leave again. So she quits being a ballerina as they won't accept her without teasing her and kicking her out otherwise. She has another nightmare where she is now wearing a sad mask and dancing amongst the nightmare creatures. When that all ends, she dresses up as a b-girl and tries to infiltrate the crew. Some recognize her, but she denies it's her, and they kind of shrug it off. Eventually she shows some hip hop moves, and they start to accept her. They realize what's going on, and she admits she has a crush on one of the guys, and so they hook them up at the end. The end.

The two downsides of this play were 1) she doesn't really show excellent b-boy skills. She just does really basic moves, and you really expect her to be awesome, and 2) there's no real huge conflict or enemy she has to overcome... she quits ballet, becomes a b-girl, and is accepted. I suppose there was an internal struggle for quitting ballet, but I was hoping for at least a dance-off between her and this thug guy from the crew that really disliked her. But... it just kind of ends. And after the show ended, they had the whole cast come out and freestyle dance before doing the final bow and close (oh, and the announcer guy also started doing this awesome beatbox routine before you realize it's a joke and somebody behind the curtain is doing it instead).

One of the most shocking things, however, was that pictures were allowed during the show. Everybody was constantly taking pictures (no flash, though), so we all figured why not? Here are some pictures I took of the show... and then one of me and one of the b-girl dancers after the show (they were doing free photo sessions with some of the cast). They're all kind of blurry, but they're good enough.

The Evening

Neither Kira nor me had eaten yet, so we decided to all go out for a bit of dinner in Insadong. We hit up this place Kira had been to before where you order and pay from this machine and then they bring it to your seat within a minute or two. Mine was good--it was a noodle and mandu (dumpling) soup. A huge bowl for only about 4 bucks.

Kira then suggested a music street festival going on in Hongdae and maybe drinks, so we hopped a train to Hongdae and the walking continued. And even though it was dark by this point, the heat and humidity was still there, wearing us down. The music festival wasn't anything special (for us). It was a neat atmosphere, though, with all the singers and groups in their areas surrounded by people, and street vendors lining every available spot. It's just everything was so super crowded and cars were still trying to drive down the packed roads, and the majority of the songs were in Korean (except one Korean guy singing Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours"... yeah). It was just a little much for us, so we decided to walk towards the river and see what we could find there. 

We had to cross from Hongdae to the next area over, which is Sangsu--a really cool little area (and an almost ideal living area), but it was quite a bit more walking to get there, and my knees were really weak by this point. (Tim was getting a bit tired at this point, too.) We actually came by a home of these two guys Kira knows (both foreigners like us), and they were both there. One guy was about to grill some vegetables out on his balcony and invited us up. So we went up and met the two guys, who were both really nice. And we just hung out on their huge balcony (which had like 3 full couches on it), and it was a cool little place. So we basically hung out with them (and a couple more people ended up stopping by as the night went on).

But Tim and I especially were both exhausted, and by 10:30 we were ready to head on home. And it was a good thing we did. The journey from Sangsu to Gunpo was an interesting one. Normally it'd be 3 transfers and about 45 minutes. What we ended up getting were packed trains and 4 transfers because of some issues. Our first transfer was just a stop away, and the next 4 stops after that. This is where we parted with Kira. The next train we had to choose carefully, as this particular line split two ways at one point, and the wrong train would take you the wrong direction. We ended up getting on the wrong one, but we knew it getting on, so we stopped at the next station so to grab the following train. But we had to go over to another platform where we were only supposed to wait for like 3 minutes. We ended up waiting for close to 15 before our train finally showed up. We almost had to make a 5th transfer because we thought this train would be an express, which doesn't stop at every station. But it turned out not to be and we took it all the way to Gunpo--and it was one of the last trains to Gunpo of the night.

We went to a little corner store leaving the station and I bought some water (as I was almost out at home and was dying of thirst at this point). By the time I came through my door, it was 12:05 AM, and I was utterly exhausted. It had been an epically long day, but a fun and interesting one, and one that went places I never expected... as these Seoul Days always do.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Round Trip To Nowhere


About a week ago, I learned that I would have Friday, May 17, off for the National Holiday that is Buddha's Birthday. I wanted to do something special, so I began doing research on things you can do/places you can go on this day. As it turned out, there is a place called Bongamsa Temple, a Buddhist monastery and Zen meditation center that many trek to on this day. The temple itself doesn't look special or even greater than some other temples you can visit. So why do thousands visit this place every year? Because it's only open to non-Monks one day a year--Buddha's birthday. The second trickiest thing about visiting this temple... is that it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere and is one of the most complicated (tourist-drawing) places to get to in Korea. In fact, here is basically the directions for me to get there:

1) Take the train for an hour into Seoul (in a direction I'd never been before).
2) From the train station, go to Dong Seoul Bus Terminal and catch a bus.
3) Take the 2-hour bus trip to a little town called Jeumchon, which is one of many little towns that make up the bigger Mungyeong.
4) Walk 40 minutes in an undisclosed direction and/or catch a cab to the other side of Jeumchon to a different bus station.
5) Catch the Red 300 bus (which supposedly had leave times at 7:40 AM, 9:40 AM, 1:40 PM, 5:40 PM, and 7:10 PM). 
6) After roughly another hour on the bus, get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to walk for another hour to the temple. OR, if you so choose, you can wait 15 minutes for a shuttle that will take you closer, and then you only have to walk for 20 minutes.

Knowing I might only have one shot at seeing this place in my lifetime, I made the decision to make the  ridiculously long and complicated journey. Here were further downsides: 1) I'd be going to the middle of nowhere where not a soul would speak English, 2) I get terrible anxiety when it comes to potentially getting lost (and it doesn't help that I wouldn't be able to communicate with anybody), and 3) I'd be going alone, as my friends had other plans for the long weekend. But knowing this was a once-a-year (and/or in-a-lifetime) opportunity, I bit the bullet and went for it.

It started on Monday when one of my co-teachers helped me book a bus ticket from Seoul to Jeumchon. We printed off the confirmation page, and all I had to do was show that at the ticket counter along with the card I paid with, and I'd get my ticket. She also forewarned me that traffic would be bad on Friday, so while the trip might normally take 2 hours, it could take up to three or a little longer. And that was fine. We got my bus ticket for 10 AM (though at the time, I had a slight inkling I should have gotten it for a little earlier time), which under normal circumstances would get me to Jeumchon by 12, but at worst 1:30. And then the bus to the temple road left at 1:40, so it would be perfect timing. With all of this in mind, I mentally prepared myself for Friday... and then the day came.


I wake up at 7 AM on Friday. I fully charged everything overnight so I'd be ready to go and have some stuff to keep me entertained on the longer portions of the trip. With my stuff, I make my way to the Gunpo train station. It's a little after 8 AM. I'm full of anxiety over the trip, even to the point I felt slightly light headed at times. But I get to the station fine, wait for the train to Geumjeong (which doesn't take long, thankfully), and head over. This first little leg was easy. I've traveled this direction many times at this point.

It was getting off to transfer in Sadang where there newness began. On the train to Sadang, I found I was sitting across from what seemed to be an American girl, which is an uncommon occurrence,  especially on a train prior to reaching Seoul. But we didn't speak. It eventually reached the point of awkwardness where we were aware of each other's presence, but had waited too long to say anything.

And then we both got off at Sadang. She went left. I turned right. And then I checked my map, then checked the walls and signs of the station, and turned around and went left. And I ended up standing right behind her in line, waiting for the next train. We eventually got on the train, still saying nothing, even though our train became packed and we were smooshed against each other at one point. But she soon got off the train, and I continued on toward my destination.


As I exited the train at my stop, I had no idea where I was going, nor what this Dong Seoul Bus Terminal even looked like. But I confusedly followed a herd of people out of the station and across the street toward a large building with buses nearby that I could only deduce with all my Sherlock-ian powers to be the Bus Terminal.

And boy was it hectic inside. It was like a small airport, packed full of the amount of people that'd be in a large airport. There were lines and lines of people waiting to get tickets at the ticket counters/kiosks. And it's at this point I'm starting to panic, because my bus leaves at 10 AM, and at this time, it's roughly 9:45 and I have zero idea on which line to get in. At first glance, each line offers tickets to different locations, and the giant marquee above is in Korean. And although I can read it, there were hundreds of towns and I didn't have the kind of time. Until I got closer and saw the Romanized spelling underneath the Korean. I quickly scanned the names and found myself standing in the last line on the opposite side from the entrance. It was a long one, but, fortunately, it moved quickly.

Seats across the aisle, pre-occupants
I got my ticket with no issues, and the exit to the waiting area was right nearby, so it was incredibly easy to find. And there I waited for about 5 minutes until the bus showed up and they started letting us on. I found my seat (they're assigned), which was near the front and all on my lonesome (the right side of the bus just had 1 seat, next to the windows. Then there was a narrow aisle followed by two seats). An old man was sitting across the aisle from me. He was well dressed, and had that "old and wise" look about him. Not long after the bus departed, he opened up a bag of Korean Doritos.

It wasn't long after the journey began that my worry-meter began to rise. We were essentially stuck in traffic, and it took an hour just to get out of Seoul. But I figured, hey, we'd eventually hit a big highway and things would speed up after we got out of the city. When two more hours had passed and we had barely reached the halfway point, I knew it was hopeless. The 1:40 mark was speeding towards us quickly.

The old wise man's phone kept going off. His ringtone was the instrumental to Dancing Queen. At one point, he offered me a Korean Dorito. I took one, as it's impolite to deny when Koreans offer you something, especially if it's an elder offering.

1:40 came and went. It's at this point I tried talking myself into believing the bus times were old, and there was a 3:40 or something in there. Because why would it just jump 4 hours like that? I start to feel OK about the situation and know we can still make potentially good time. Sure, it's a 2-hour bus trip, and we've been on the road for 4 hours. But you gotta stay optimistic, right?

A small corner chunk of the rest stop. Buildings to the left.
Then we take a 15 minute rest stop break. OK, sure. Fine. Might as well. I don't get out with most of the others. I'm too paranoid that I'll forget how to get back to the bus and then it'll just leave without me. (The rest stop was huge.) We eventually get moving again. The old wise man gives the bus driver a little bottle of vitamin drink (I've had a couple of these--they're pretty tasty). And, finally, after another 45-50 minutes, we come to our destination in Jeumchon. Our 2-hour bus ride had taken not 2, not 3, not even 4 hours. But 5. 5 whole hours on a bus, sitting next to the old, wise, dorito-loving, coconut juice-drinking, Dancing Queen, and staring out the window at what eventually became some of the most gorgeous countryside views I've ever seen. Seriously--I was too slow to bring out my phone to take pictures most of the time, but there were views you've only seen in movies. But this leg of the journey was over, and it was time to get off the bus.

The only real scenic picture I could grab.


So it's almost 3 PM at this point. I stand up to get off the bus, and I suddenly realize that my head is spinning. All of the anxiety I'd been building up all day, on top of the fact I hadn't eaten anything but a single dorito, had really impacted my light headedness. But I'd come this far, so by God, I was going to at least try.

I exited through the other side of the Jeumchon bus station and, lo and behold, had no idea where to even begin. The only directions I could really find anywhere on the internet were "go straight, cross the 4-way stop, turn right, go straight and you'll reach the bus stop" as well as "a 30-40 minute walk" as described on a different site. But I couldn't even figure out which direction to go at the 4-way stop, much less any of the rest.

It's at this point in the story I need to do a little backtracking, because there's a very important tidbit that needs to be explained. Throughout the 5-hour bus trip, I did 3 things to keep myself occupied: 1) listened to music, 2) chatted on Facebook via my phone, and 3) checked the map on my phone to see how much further away we were. Needless to say, my phone battery drained very quickly. I had to stop chatting on Facebook, but couldn't stop checking the map. It eventually came to a point where the battery was below half. And I still planned on using the phone not only as a camera to take pictures, but as an emergency device in case I needed to call my co-teacher for assistance (her request).

OK, so anyway, I had no idea how to get to this second bus terminal. Fortunately, I had written down the Korean for it on a piece of paper before leaving home, so I hopped in a cab and showed the driver the Korean, which worked. He took me to the second station, which was somewhat hidden, but I found it fine.

Now imagine yourself in my situation. You're in small-town Korea (for all my family and friends back home, think the Cuero of Korea), hours from anyone you know, where nobody but you speaks English, your phone is going to die soon, and you're so light-headed from anxiety and lack of food that you're afraid you might fall over at any second (which isn't helping said anxiety).

So I walk around trying to find the bus times, which I do eventually find. Except they're completely in Korean. I mean, not even tiny English letters beneath for foreigners. This is like a we-never-have-foreigners zone. But, again, I fortunately can read Hangul, and I knew what word I was looking for. And I still couldn't find it. And then I saw some color coding, and a reddish area with (300) next to it. I figured that's where I wanted to look, and sure enough, I found it in red letters. And, sure enough, the time jumped from 1:40 to 5:40... with no 7:10. So it's now 3:10 or so, and the next bus to Bongamsa is over two hours away, with no promise of a bus to pick me up and bring me back to Jeumchon from a middle-of-nowhere road drop off point. And no promise that by the time I actually got to the temple at this point that it would still be open for visitors (remember, it was still another 2 hours-ish journey from Jeumchon).

I had run out of adventure juice for the day, and my risk-taking quota had been far exceeded. So I decided it was time to just head back to the first bus terminal and make my way back home.

So here was my next realization. I could walk back for 40 minutes feeling light-headed, and in a direction I wasn't sure was the right one. Or I could get in a cab and say... what, exactly? Without them speaking English, I couldn't exactly say "the other Jeumchon bus terminal so I can get to Seoul." But I couldn't just stand around forever doing nothing, so I hopped in a cab (which thankfully wasn't the one I came in--I wasn't up to that embarrassment) and said "Jeumchon bus." And he nodded and took me right where I needed to go.

That was easy.
I went into the station and, similar to my previous realization, discovered I would now have to buy a bus ticket from a non-English speaker, and I wasn't even sure which window to go to or what to say. But there were no lines as this was a much smaller place than Dong Seoul Bus Terminal. And then I saw a sign next to a ticket window that said "Dong Seoul * Gangnam." I figured it was worth a shot. I told the lady "Dong Seoul." She printed me a ticket, pointed to the leave time (which was 3:55. At this point, it was about 3:25).

As I waited, I bought a tube of Sour Cream & Onion Pringles to get at least some kind of food in my system. I stayed inside for a bit before going outside to wait for the bus.

Waiting for the bus.

I knew I wasn't going to get some of the same views as I did the last time, but I was going to be ready with my video camera (my phone was near dead, and I wanted to save the battery just in case). And for the first hour or so, I took random footage of the countryside as we drove along. Not as cool as some of the other shots I missed the first time, but there's some good ones. Here's a short compilation video.

Anyway, this was a pretty simple drive back (I was also in a single seat row again, though this time near the back of the bus). I just listened to music and watched a couple episodes of Community on my laptop. Oh, and we suddenly pulled over to the side of the road to help a stranded bus by taking on its passengers. So... that happened. And this trip only took 2 hours. Almost on the nose. Yeah.


I promise I'm not making any of the following up. The set of events that occurred at this point of the story were just as weird for me to experience as they probably are for you to hear.

So I follow the crowd to the train station from the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal and realize (I had a lot of realizations today) that I have no idea which train to get on. And for whatever reason, this station is absurdly unhelpful in its maps and markings and signage. At least every other station gives you arrows or posters or something to guide you where you need to be. Not this place. So I go up a set of stairs and look at a map, then look at my map, and I'm standing there trying to figure it out.

And that's when a young Korean guy comes up to me and asks if I need some help. He spoke English pretty well, though he still had an accent. It was clear he was just very excited to be able to use English in a conversation. He asks me where I need to go, and I show him on the map the direction. But that's not enough to subdue his helpfulness. He then basically asks me where my endgoal is, as if he wants to give me full directions (he really wanted to speak English with me) and be super helpful. But when he realized it was pretty far away, and I told him all I really needed was the first step to take me towards Sadang, he gladly pointed me to the platform opposite us. I thanked him and walked down the stairs, around the corner... and waited for the stairs to empty from the exiting train passengers of my train I just missed.

It doesn't take long for another to show up, though, and it's abnormally empty. I'm actually able to sit down pretty quickly (a rarity), and we continue to Sadang. Finding this transfer was a bit easier, though as I'm waiting for the train, I'm standing behind this group of 5 girls who are just chatting among themselves (more on them in a minute). Anyway, the train shows up... and we're not allowed on for some reason. The train empties, and the people who started to go in come back out, and the train leaves, totally empty. Uh, sure. OK. A few minutes later, another train shows up, this one much fuller.

Long story short on this one, I'm stuck standing next to the 5 girls, who one at a time slowly take over the seats in front of us as they go empty, though one proceeds to just sit on the lap of another (and when I say girl, I don't mean little girl. Young woman might be a more apt term, though age was really hard to discern with a couple of them). It comes to a point where a seat opens up next to one of the girls. The one sitting on another's lap starts to move for it, but stops and offers it to me (no English, just motions). I shake my head and motion for her to take it. We both do this a couple more times until she's basically insisted (while giggling) that I sit down. So I do.

2 seconds later, I see the next stop is mine. So I sat there for about 2 minutes before standing back up to go to the door (and the lap girl proceeded to take the spot anyway). It's after 7 PM by this point, and I'm exhausted despite not really having done much. I exit onto Geumjeong platform and wait.

And then, as I stand next to the waffle stand, a monk in full garb walks by in front of me. Alrighty then.  So the train gets there, I get on, and stand right next to the Korean nun (habit and all). And the two girls in front of me and the nun are talking and teasing each other (one of them actually gives the other the finger in front of the nun), and the other takes out a full, large hand mirror from her purse and proceeds to check her teeth.

It's at this point I've pretty much mentally checked out of this day.


I get off at Gunpo station, and as I step off the escalator from the station onto the sidewalk, my phone finally dies. And I figure that after such a day, I deserve to treat myself. I'd been wanting to try the Korean Pizza Hut for a while, as there's one literally a minute from my apartment building (if even that far). So I order one online and go to pick it up. And here it is... the weird ending to a weird day.

For 18 bucks, I got a pizza a little bigger than my hand topped with bacon, cajun potato wedges, bellpepper, onion, corn, mushroom, and sour cream (it sounds disgusting... but it actually wasn't that bad, to be honest). And a side of sweet pickles... because apparently all Italian food in Korea comes with a side of sweet pickles. I have no idea why. Just roll with it. That's what I do. And that's what I did all day.