A Peak into the North and a Leap into Ice

29 01 2010

As if skiing for Christmas wasn’t enough snow, we went back to Gangwando province for more. The MOE (Ministry of Education) organized another adventurous trip to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and Ice Festival. They took us to the DMZ on the east side of the country. The DMZ serves as a dividing line and buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 2.5 miles wide, which includes the Han River and some land, according to Wikepedia.

We’ve been to the DMZ on the west side, where the U.S. military is based and which is more dangerous because it’s easier for the North Koreans to enter because there aren’t as many mountains as there are on the east side in Gangwando. My good high school friend, Quentin Willard, reminded me of good southern hospitality and took us to Camp Casey, a U.S. Army base where we had Taco Bell! (They have McDonald’s and KFC everywhere in Korea, but not Taco Bell!) He took us to the DMZ, which had an eerie feeling because they had a small amusement park, the tracks for that train that took South Korean workers to the North to work and a few sights and memorials from the war, such a steam locomotive that had hundreds of bullet holes. He also took us to another observatory where we had a clear view of North Korea. Across the Han River, we could see a small village with just a few houses and no lights. This village was definitely a traditional North Korean village where they had no electricity or cars. They lived off of farming and hunting, while they could see the bright lights across the river in South Korea.

The other side of the DMZ was totally different. It’s located at a Korean Army base. It took a long time to get there because there was so much ice and snow. But it was definitely a beautiful scene when we got to the top of the mountain. This part of the DMZ wasn’t as commercialized because not many people go there. The mountains are too hard to get around, which is also the reason why it is not as dangerous as the other side of the DMZ. (So, why are the Americans on the more dangerous side?) The mountains can protect South Korea from the North. Although there are huge mountains on this side, the river is much narrower. Some native teachers, who we went with, said that they saw some North Korean soldiers on the other side. Both sides are definitely worth seeing if you get a chance. But, they also used to do day trips to Pyongyang, North Korea. They recently opened the borders to Americans. That would be an interesting trip. Click here to find out more.

Again, the MOE never ceases to surprise us. Because that was the first weekend of the Ice Festival, there weren’t any hotels in the small downtown area. So, we got lost in the snowy mountains trying to find our “hotel.” We actually stayed in log cabins with 20 other native English teachers. It was a blast! We got up early the next morning because our day was filled with being on ice. We were told that we would go ice fishing and fishing with our bare hands for freshwater mountain trout. They gave us the poles and string, but no bait. They said the fish don’t need the bait. We just had a small fake fish with a hook. It worked for some people who caught a fish. But some of us were just freezing our toes and fingers off. After warming up in a rest area, we had an appointment. There was a lot to see and do at the Ice Festival, including an ice castle, ice sculptures and games on the ice such as ATVing, ice soccer, ice skating, etc. But, we had to hurry because we had an appointment to go fishing with our bare hands! I had just realized that we were supposed to do the polar bear plunge and catch the fish!!! They gave us shorts and a t-shirt and we shakily walked to the pool area where others were sitting down, preparing themselves to be freezing. The announcer tried to warm us up to jumping into the freezing cold water, so he asked someone to dive in! A Korean man dove and then one of the native English teachers dove! He’s SCUBA diver, but the water was freezing cold. He did the count off. Everyone jumped in! But, Randy, two other native teachers and I took a few more seconds to have the courage, but we did it! I didn’t even try to catch a fish with my bare hands because all I wanted to do was get out of the ice cold water. While our toes and bodies are freezing, they led us to a hot foot bath. The water was extremely hot, it took a few minutes for me put my feet in all the way. After a while, we were all fine. Some teachers caught one fish, two fish and even three fish! But, needless to say, bare-hands fishing and polar bear plunging is a one-time experience. Thanks to the MOE, we can check that off of our list of things to do before we die – wait, that wasn’t even on my list!

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When in Beijing

28 01 2010

We only had four days off for New Year’s, so we decided to go to Beijing with Kangsan Travel. We were hesitant about spending our vacation with a tour group, but it turned out to be a fun and fulfilling trip. As soon as we got off the plane, our fabulous tour guide, Charley, greeted us at airport. Charley, a Chinese man who had studied English in England, made the tour informative and extremely fun. We were able to do more than we could have done on our own.

Our first meal in China was very appropriate for the frigid weather that we faced. We went to a rustic temple restaurant where we had a traditional Hot Pot. It is commonly known as a Chinese fondue or steamboat. It is a mixture of lamb or pork and a variety of vegetables and is cooked in a hot pot of broth at the table. It’s guaranteed to warm anyone on a cold winter day.

Next, we headed to watch a traditional Chinese Acrobatic show. The performers were probably younger than 25 years old. When you go to Beijing be sure to stop by and experience an amazing show that teaches you more about the culture of China.

After a full day of traveling and sightseeing, we still decided to bring in the New Year’s, Beijing style! We partied in one of the hottest nightclubs that Beijing has to offer. VICS Club is located near Worker’s Stadium and is a haven for trendy locals who love to have a good time. It’s like two clubs in one with all kinds of great music. The DJs played hip hop, dance and club music. This was an unforgettable New Year. After 2am we decided to go to the hotel because we needed to get up by 8am to start our first adventure of the New Year by climbing the Great Wall of China. But, we couldn’t go back to Holiday Inn Lido Hotel without a hot dog!

The Great Wall of China

Climbing the Great Wall of China was amazing. Many people live their entire life wanting to make a trip to one of the wonders of the world and we were very excited to check the Great Wall off our list of “Things to do before I die.” The Great Wall of China is one of the cornerstones of Chinese culture. It’s one of the largest military walls in all of history and served to protect the early Chinese empire from hostile enemies. The Great Wall of China has been around for nearly 2000 years and still stands today as a wonderful architectural beauty. The Ming Dynasty built the Great Wall of China. It was built of stone, wood and bricks to keep enemies away. If you get a chance to climb this great wonder of the world, do it! Click here to find out more about the history of the Great Wall of China.

Summer Palace is a famous classic imperial garden with breathtaking views. In the wintertime you can go ice-skating on the frozen lake. The Summer Palace is a must see when you head to Beijing.

Tinanmen Square

Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world and it can hold up to 10 million people at one time! It is a symbol of China, as it sits in the center of Beijing and displays the Tinanmen Tower, the Great Hall and Mao Zedong’s memorial. It has been the site of many historical events, among which was a gathering of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. The protest lasted for six weeks after the leader of China who supported economic and political reform passed away. Protesters were mostly students who wanted economic change and democratic reform. The protest ended when hundreds of these protesters were killed by government troops in the streets. Click here to learn more about Tiananmen Square.

Behind Mao Zedong’s memorial laid the Forbidden City. Built in the 15th Century and consisting of 980 surviving buildings, the Forbidden City has been named a World Heritage Site and listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden buildings. The Forbidden City is an amazing and enormous place. We were lucky to see the Forbidden City in snow.

The Forbidden City

But what is even larger than the Forbidden City is the Temple of Heaven. It is the largest group of structures in the country dedicated to rituals that pay homage to heaven. This temple was built specifically for the worship of heaven and prayers for good harvests during the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties. As we walked around I really thought that this name of the temple was very appropriate for this magnificent structure. But another interesting site near the Temple of Heaven wasn’t a structure; it was the park outside of the temple that was filled with elderly people enjoying life. They were singing, dancing, playing music and games. It was amazing to see the joy in these people’s lives with the even the simplest things.

Temple of Heaven

Shopping in China is an adventure in itself. If you don’t know how to bargain, stay home. For example if you’re looking to buy a tea set, the price starts at 500 Chinese Yuan. The game starts by going back and forth. I really enjoyed shopping in China because it involved a lot of acting and body language. After five minutes of going back and forth I was able to buy the same tea set for 50 Chinese Yuan, which is equivalent to $7.30. At the end even though I did a great job bargaining, I accepted that I still got ripped off. Everything in the world is made from China and it is quite amazing to see the people sell their products.

After traveling around the world, China stands out. There is something special about this unique and beautiful country. The food, diversity, culture and people of China are great. With more than 1.3 billion people living in China and 56 different dialects of the Chinese language, I think we have our work cut out for us as Americans. China is on the brinks of being the next superpower nation in the world. We would like to thank Kangsan travel and all of our friends who made this trip very special. Xing Nian Kwai le (Happy New Year)!





Christmas in Korea

25 01 2010

Busan

It’s a little hard to tell that it’s Christmas in Korea. There were a few Christmas lights and Christmas trees in Ulsan, but if you wanted to see a lot of lights and feel the Christmas spirit, you had to go to Busan or Seoul. Kosin (pronounced koshin) University in Busan had their first Christmas Tree Festival where they had millions of lights around the Christian campus.  Kosin University is on Yeongdo island in Busan. Take the subway to Nampodong, where the shopping street is filled with Christmas lights, and jump in a taxi and say Yeongdo, which is the name of the island, and then say Kosin taehakyo, which is the name of the university. You’ll be amazed!

Seoul

Another way to celebrate Christmas in Korea is Santacon in Seoul. Apparently, Santacon happens in other major cities around the world. I had never heard of it until we moved to Korea. Hundreds of people dressed up in Santa Claus outfits and bar hopped all night. They even had a map of which bars they would go to and at an exact time. But with hundreds of Santas, there was no way that they would all stay together. It was definitely an experience and great to see everyone in the Christmas spirit.

YongPyong

But, the best way to celebrate Christmas in Korea is with the friends you’ve made to be almost like family. We went skiing at Yongpyong Resort in Gangwando province and had a little Christmas celebration of our own. It didn’t quite feel like Christmas until later because we had to catch a 3am bus from Busan to make the 5-hour trek to Yongpyong. We weren’t lucky to have a school that let us off on Christmas Eve. But the odd hours paid off. We received a 40 percent discount on the lift and ski rentals for that day! As we arrived, it definitely felt like Christmas with all of the snow and a few close friends to be around. Although, we missed opening gifts on Christmas morning, we had a nice Christmas dinner in the hostel and a Secret Santa gift party. Another plus to spending time with great people was that we got to see some of the scenes from the first Korean drama that we saw, Winter Sonata. The resort had pictures and cardboard cut outs of the famous drama everywhere, at the bottom and top of the mountain. We missed our families dearly but we’re thankful that we were able to celebrate Christmas with great people at a beautiful place.