It has been a busy month at work and getting out to travel is always on my mind. My current fascination is Korea. While Seoul offers the cosmopolitan charms, smaller cities are circled by mountains that call to my blood as a child of the Adirondacks. I find home in breathing in the cold air and smelling the fallen leaves on the ground entering a trail, embraced by the forest.
I was talking with some friends recently about my love of novelty, exploring something or some place different. It holds a great allure for me. Korea is currently that shining jewel. Below are a few photos in and around Seoul. I finally got to Gyeongbokgung Palace near the Gwanghwamun Gate this time…I always seem to go there when it is closed.
New Year celebrations have never been one of my favorite things in America. It always seems to be about binging/purging – the excesses of the holidays, followed by the ill-fated resolutions of the new year. Over here however, there seems to be much more of the promise of the future. While I am still not a believer of the new year resolution, you can change your life any day you choose to and not tell everyone, I can get behind a feeling of renewal and promise.
What does that have to do with Seoul? I decided to go get a body scrub, a form of renewal, as the top layer of skin is scrubbed off and you emerge fresh and pink (if you’re Caucasian like me) and feeling reborn.
I looked around the internet for possibilities of where to go. Dragon Hill Resort was mentioned by several Americans and that in itself was a reason not to go. No offense to Americans, but I did not move 6,000 miles away from New York to be surrounded by Americans. That is not the point of moving to Asia.
I finally found something that looked like an authentic experience. Again, I judge most of my ‘authentic’ experiences based on how many Westerners I encounter. If you do a search and type in Insadong Hanjeungmak, you will find several reviews. I found this site: https://www.myguideseoul.com/beauty-and-medical/insadong-hanjeungmak-sauna and decided this was the place for me.
First I had to find it, and I will tell you fellow travelers in and around Asia, sometimes Google Maps will let you down and if you have an iPhone, Apple Maps will get you there on foot. I can’t tell you how many times I have wandered around cities with my iPhone looking like ‘where’s Waldo?’ but I always seem to get there.
This was the case, the map told me I had arrived but at that time I could not read Hangul, (I have since remedied that little problem) and I kept walking back and forth in front of what looked like a Korean equivalent of a strip mall. Finally I asked a security guard and he grabbed me by my coat sleeve and walked me to the door. I think I have lived in Japan long enough to be surprised by physical contact. Koreans don’t seem to have a problem with touching, some times brusquely.
As in the video link above, they lead you by the arm, into a locker room, get you some spa pajamas (I love these things) and bring you to this little beehive looking structure. She opened the little door and there is heat radiating out. I was a little bit tentative as I had to duck down and then the door closed behind me. It was a dry hot little enclosure, that smelled gloriously of wood…the straw mats were hot, everything was hot. It was then that I realized how accustomed to heat I have become because I was able to be in there a little over a half an hour.
I came out, dropped my clothes, showered up and sat in a nice public bath for a little while. I noticed the tables where people were being worked and one lady started walking on a customer’s back. I thought, oh I hope I get the little ajumma at the far end, scrubbing away. As luck would have it. I did.
How to describe this? She guided me to the table, somewhat roughly positioned me on my back and went to work. I learned very quickly the word for ‘no’ ….
…sorry, this was too funny.
I felt like a piglet at the hands of 4-H student ready to go to the county fair. Scrubbed, with a glove that felt like a Brillo pad, in places I would never think to scrub that harshly until I was ready for the other side. Oh, they have a mask on your face and a cover for your eyes, so you get to use all your other senses for this. Now, she put me on my stomach and I heard water running….I hadn’t finished acknowledging that when extremely hot water was thrown over me. Wow…hahaha….what an experience.
It was a novel experience, and one I highly recommend. I did not encounter one Western face in there and I don’t know if I’ve ever been that clean or tingly in my whole life. I left there and walked back to my hotel, so wonderful cold, windy breezes against my face.
That was after the new year….however last weekend on a whim and a three day weekend, I decided to go check out Daegu, a city about an hour’s ride north of Pusan. I believe it is the fourth largest city in Korea and it is known for textiles and traditional medicine.
But getting from the airport to the city means riding a bus, train or taxi. I decided the bus seemed to have the most direct route so I would take that. I had a giant handful of change because I had seen a video that warned foreigners not to get on busses with paper bills. I attempted to say the name of my stop and the bus driver gave me this baleful stare. So I pointed on the phone and he said, in quite understandable English, “you don’t have a card?!” Umm….no… I put out my hand like a little kid at the corner store and let him pick out the coins. He waved his hand in dismissal when he had enough change…and enough of me. I thought to myself two things….
1. Koreans remind me of New Yorkers, how quickly they get irritated
2. I am getting a bus card as soon as I get out of here.
I went to a convenience store once as soon as I got off the bus, got a card and was on my way.
Daegu also has a number of traditional markets, but the one I was interested in was Seomun Market which has been around since before the 1900s. You can read more about this on this website: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SHP/SH_EN_7_2.jsp?cid=1271098
There was the crowded push and shove of making your way from stall to stall, the pungent fragrances of herbs, medicine and food stalls intermingled. People talking, movement, being carried along in a little bit of a sensory overload. I bought some of those scrubbing mitts and the ubiquitous cloth masks the Koreans seem to prefer.
I went out walking around the city at night, enjoying as always in Asia the freedom of being alone and safe in the dark streets. I also found my home away from home, Starbucks, and had a cafe latte while searching for a porridge restaurant nearby.
One of my favorite Korean dramas is “Hooray for Love” and centers on a young woman who opens a porridge shop. Of course the child in me, remembering “The Three Bears” delighted in actually eating porridge. I found this place and ate there both days, so delicious.
The next morning I got up early, threw some raw almonds in my Patagonia backpack with my faithful Zojirushi (thermal bottle) full of black coffee and set off for Palgongsan National Park and a climb to the Gatbawi Buddha that sat atop.
Armed with my prepaid bus pass (CashBee for anyone going to Korea), I got on the bus and sat back for about an hour as we made our way to the Palgongsan National Park.
To get to the trail, which is about 8 million unevenly spaced stone steps, is a walk in itself. Before you start the actual trail there are a few temples along the way, I am assuming so you can pray for the strength to achieve your goal. I know that was my prayer.
I began the climb and realized early on that I am not in the condition that I think I am. Thankfully there were many stops along the way, but I was amazed at how strong these Korean people are. This path was crowded, but it wasn’t hardcore hikers that were passing me, these were people out for a casual Sunday hike. It also occurred to me that I have to start believing the reviews when they say that it’s a difficult hike, it really is.
At one of the stopping points I sat down on a bench, another sole climber was sitting there, but he looked like he was not struggling at all, smiled and offered me an orange. I declined but thought how nice people can be to each other. At my last big stop, a trio of girls and I assume their father offered me tea. I said no, but they insisted I take an orange.
I have spent a number of years climbing around trails in the woods so I was dressed accordingly in my fabulous red hiking pants that I bought in my first trip to Korea and several layers of wool, with a light Patagonia micro-puff hoodie. I was well equipped and almost to the top I stopped to breathe. A man coming down the trail, looked at me and laughed and pointed and said something like, it’s right there! I said ‘Fighting!” put up a fist and he laughed again. It helped me make that last little push. After many, many, many stops, I arrived at the top of the mountain and at the foot of the healing Buddha.
There are brightly colored lanterns that serve as a ceiling for the worshipful at the shrine to the medicinal Buddha.
I got the information from this site: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/ATR/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=1252997
“‘Gatbawi’ is a statue of Buddha that sits against a rocky cliff of Gwanbong Peak that rises 850m above the sea level. The name ‘Gatbawi’ comes from the fact that the Buddha has a flat rock (‘bawi’) on its head that looks like a Korean traditional hat (called a ‘gat’). The statue, designated Treasure No. 431, is one of the most sophisticated Buddha statues of the 9th Century. Legend has it that the statue grants honest prayers, so every year at sunrise on New Year’s Day people flock to the Buddha statue to make a wish for the new year and see the rising sun.”
It was an incredible moment, breathing heavy, sweating but feeling cold winds on my face. I took a little time to pay my respects and just be quiet as I sat on a rock off the trail at the base of the Buddha. I also peeled that orange with cold fingers and savored it’s sweetness and reflected on people and humanity in general.
They had a little stall and I bought a bracelet of glass beads that looked like the brightly colored lanterns at the the shrine.
Slowly I began my descent, my legs began explain to me that I will be paying the price for this little excursion for a while. It is a week later, and I am still sore…
I got back on the bus, back to my room, took a bath and fell asleep for an hour or so, then got dressed and went out in search of more porridge.
Some times traveling alone is not traveling alone at all, I think we carry people with us whether they are alive or passed on. I had this thought after looking up and seeing a sign, it said Tina in Hangul. I think this is why I never feel alone, people always have a way of showing up and reminding me of their presence.
I spent that last night having more porridge, wandering around the streets and planning out the bus route back to the airport in the morning. I said good bye to Daegu for now, but I think I will go back there again.
Oh, I forgot to put this in earlier…
My friend up above may be seen with one of my favorite Koreans in the video below.
Have a great new year and if you want to make resolutions, just do it, you can change your life any day of the year you decide to.