Julian and I decided to check out Andong. One of the oldest surviving settlements in Korea, Andong flourished during the Joseon dynasty and became the center of Confucian studies.
Today there are still many villages that maintain a traditional lifestyle and I was eager to experience “old” Korea after swimming in the large streets of Seoul.
Somewhere along the drive from Daegu to Andong, the vista changed from grimy cityscape into rural tranquility and I found myself tearing up looking out over rice fields and rolling mountains. There was an ache in my heart that couldn’t seem to take in the beauty. It’s not a sight I’ve ever seen before, but I felt like I finally found my place here. This was the Korea I had dreamt about. Traditional style houses were nestled at the foot of tree covered hills, overlooking wet rice paddies and flourishing gardens sown with onions, garlic and greens. I could imagine myself living a quiet country life here and being quite happy puttering around with my kimchi bottles and daenchang.
Before we headed out to the Hahoemaeul- a small village where we planned to spend the night, we paid a visit to the Andong Soju and Food Museum. It only seemed fitting. Along with Confucianism, Andong is also famous for its potent soju. At 45 proof, maybe those scholars needed something to make their studies more palatable. We got a free shot at the end of the museum tour, which was a smart way to entice us to buy some bottles…not that any Koreans ever seem to need an excuse to buy more soju! It did come in handy later that evening when we missed any chance for dinner. Just as beer was a meal in a stein for German monks, the soju was our nourishment in a bottle for the evening (which led to tree hugging, standing on our heads and chasing after a full moon with camera and tripod).
Korea has charmingly seemed to embrace not only the autobahn system, but also the confusing road signage one encounters in Deutschland. (at least I seem to get to get turned around every time I set foot on the autobahn…place exit signs BEFORE the exit and not after, please!) We got lost on our way to Hahoemaeul and ended up in another small village which led to an adventure with a minister, a sinner and a scribe.
I’ve always heard of Korean hospitality, and even encountered it firsthand, but this has usually been with family friends or acquaintances.
To be honest, I’d been feeling a little cynical about my Korean experiences thus far as I’d already been ripped off a few times and looked down upon for my gyo-po inadequacies by strangers, so I was pleasantly surprised when Julian and I stepped into the courtyard of what I thought was a museum house (it was the home of a scribe from the Joseon dynasty) and was greeted by the man of the manor. He insisted we sit down on his open veranda and plied us with drink and a history lesson. I’d never seen a man so eager to entertain guests.
In another amusing turn of events, a local minister came up to the house to distribute the good word and…packets of tissue. I guess it was free advertising for his ministry, (address, phone number and a rainbow clearly printed on each packet) and as I realized during the rest of the trip…tissues come in handy. Ladies- when visiting Korea remember to always have tissues and hand sanitizer on hand as most of the public restrooms in smaller towns will supply you with neither tp nor soap! Something that didn’t sink in until about the 3rd time I reached for an empty toilet paper dispenser, cursed profusely and did the little drip dry dance! He was smart, that minister, as I did indeed thank god for the tissues the next time I walked into a bereft lavatory.
I guess not too many tourists make it up to this tiny village because our host insisted on giving us a little tour of another historical landmark and the minister tagged along, even though he was clearly displeased to be associating with a known sinner (our man was evidently not a churchgoer). In a little competition of- dance for the foreigners, the two of them were a veritable Laurel & Hardy, shooting off facts and tidbits of information. We made a curious group, a minister, the godless grandpa, the wei-guk-in and the gyo-po.
We had, what would be both our lunch and dinner, at this amazing restaurant on the way to Hahoemaeul. Most people are familiar with Korean BBQ, and I am no stranger to a good piece of meat, but I guess Andong beef is another speciality of the region. Perfectly marbled, juicy, tender deliciousness, our lunch kind of ranked up there among one of the best meals I’ve ever had. (These people really have a good thing going- good soju, good beef, fresh local produce and a tissue dispensing preacher) The banchans were also fresh, and the daengang was perfectly potent.
Finally at Hahoemaeul we found a room at a minbak that overlooked the river.
There was a peace and tranquility there that I had been looking for. I guess I’ve always been a country gal at heart. The sight of farms just really turns me on, and I’ve always dreamed of having my own ecologically sound, environmentally friendly, self sustaining piece of heaven. This was a close approximation, with a chorus of frogs, cuckoo birds and endless stars. In the morning our Minbak lady fed us a veritable buffet of local produce, including mackerel, pickled garlic stems, and soybean sprout soup. This woman was a true artisan or she was hooked up with some really good cooks. I’ve never tasted such delicious banchans…it actually even puts my aunt’s cooking to shame.
After a quick hike up to the cliff overlooking the village and a spin around one of the Confucian academies, we spent a lazy hour at a sandy riverside beach. I was feeling the fatigue from a night of Andong soju and an early morning wake-up call when the ahjumas staying in the room next to us started chattering at 6am. There’s nothing like standing on my head to get the blood and chi flowing. Once upside down, I noticed that the two hilltops behind the Confucian academy looked exactly like a pair of of breasts-the only way I could convince Julian to get vertical. He never saw the mountain boobage, but he got a good look at mine when I leaned down to take his pic. : P
After a quick lunch of cold nengmyun noodles and a hot galbi tang soup we were ready to say an-yeong to Andong, hello Jeju Island.
gyo-po: someone ethnically korean that has grown up in another country.
banchan: the many different side dishes one gets when eating a traditional Korean meal
daengang: fermented soybean paste. Can be eaten as a paste with veggies, is also used in stews and soups as a flavor base
minbak: rooms to rent in people’s home. Kind of like a B&B but infinitely more spare (you sleep on the floor with mats- korean style) and widely ranging in levels of cleanliness. Our minbak at Hahoemauel was great.
ajhuma: korean word for an eldery lady..anyone ranging from as young as 40- grandmother..it’s more a mentality and way of behaving than an actual age thing…but beware those crowds of ahjumas with their sun visors and hiking sticks! they don’t let anything get in their way.
nengmyun: cold noodles eaten during the summer, served in a chilled meat broth with garnishes of cucumber, asian pear, pickled radish, boiled egg and slices of roast beef. it’s seasoned with a spicy mustard and vinegar…delish!
galbi tang: soup made from beef bones and ribs that are sliced in a special way. it’s one of my favorite comfort foods! (the one at this restaurant was adequate but not amazing)
I spent a horrible night riddled with insomnia. Damn that early evening latte! I knew drinking caffeine so late in the day was a bad idea, but I was pretending to be Korean, where caffeine has no effect on a body already over stimulated from the every day challenges of living in a high pressured society . This time the American side of me won out, and I spent a sleepless night. I am feeling grumpy!
Julian and I decide to do a temple stay and take a quick trip out of Daegu to Gyeongu. At the monument of some famous Korean general from the Shilla dynasty who was the only general to ever successfully beat the Japanese, who’s name I forget, but which I enjoyed taking a picture with…we take a quick break and have some freshly made Pa-jeon and Mook from an old lady selling refreshments from her cart. Pa-jeon is a delicious savory pancake that is made with, in this case, fresh green onions and octopus. (Jeon means pancake, and there are a variety of “jeon”s available. Hobak-jeon (pumpkin pancake), Haemul-jeon (Seafood pancake)…etc. Cut into bite sized pieces, we dipped it into a salty soy sauce garnished with finely chopped green onion and sesame seeds.
Mook, one of my childhood favorites, is a type of gelatin made out of acorns, think… Jell-O- but brown, and savory-not sweet. Served with toasted seaweed and a sauce similar to the one for the Pa-jeon, it’s a unique flavor and texture that people usually either hate or love.
We pass the famous Bulguksa Temple and say- Hello Buddha! This is a temple that I have often seen in many Korean movies and dramas. I’m feeling a little“star-struck” of sorts…omg, this is where jan-dee bows with that guy who likes her secretly in that drama- boys before flowers, omg…I have a blast frolicking around in my dirndl and receiving inquisitive stares from the other visitors.
We finally make our way up to the Golgulsa Temple where we will spend the night. We check in and find out that at $50/night…meditating with monks ain’t no cheap deal. We get some baggy temple clothes to wear during our visit and head up towards the top of the mountain to get a view of the Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. Created during the Silla dynasty, the Buddha is one of the oldest relics still standing in Korea. As we enjoy the fresh breeze from one of the benches placed under the trees, the head monk climbs the path towards us, walking hand in hand with… a little monkey. It’s a truly bizarre scene, but while Julian has nearly lost his lunch, I just watch on with quiet composure while he leads his little charge several times around a small stone tower. A Samuel barber song- “A monk & his cat” starts going through my head, except I exchange the words “Pangar white, Pangar” with “Monkey white, monkey..how happy we are. Alone together monkey & monk.” Granted…unless you’ve never sung the Hermit Songs, while trying to put together a junior year voice recital…this probably makes no sense at all.
After a spare vegetarian meal of monk food, we head down to the center where we will be doing an evening meditation and Sunmudo martial arts training. Now Sunmudo is amazing. A combination of yoga, qi-gong and some super duper hard core, badass kicks and jumps, I start to feel like I’ve found my center again. I’m seriously considering coming back for a month long stay to train with the monks. The monk divides us into two groups, the newbies and the experienced students. There is one particular little Korean monklet in training who seems to find it fascinating that I know how to stretch. Actually, I’m more limber than his little bad ass. As I observe even more, I realize…while there are several young boys doing the training, there are no girls, and only one French woman and one Korean woman in the entire group of the older students. Once again, my feminist soul starts seething a little…why are there no little girls training here with the monks? Why is little monk-boy giving me such ‘tude! Our instructor, a French semi-monk in training leads us in some kicks. I think I finally catch a gleam of begrudging respect from his eyes as I kick almost as high as him. There is one particular side kick that requires a considerable amount of stamina and strength and I almost manage to hold the pose as long as Frenchie…some of the older Korean dudes from the class inside come out to watch us, and their eyes literally pop out of their head when they watch me do the kicks. It’s kind of funny. I don’t think they’re used to seeing a Korean woman kick ass. A camera pops out, and one of the guys starts circling around me clicking away. I wonder just where those photos will end up…some Korean tabloid revealing the shocking news that high on some mountaintop…yes, there was finally discovered…a woman with muscle. Truth or myth! Haha.
4am a monk circles my building, his Mok-tak beating away. I’m not exactly sure what he’s chanting, but I’m pretty sure its something like….geeeeeet- uuuuup, geeeeeeet-uuuuuup, lazy asses, geeeeeet uuuuuup. I’m uuuuuup everydaaaaaay at 4ammmmm, so geeeeeet your lazy asses uuuuuuuup nooooooow. My roomie and I stumble out of bed and walk up the hill to start our second day at the temple. After a round of chanting, bowing and meditating, we head off to breakfast at 6:30am. We learn a beautiful Buddhist eating ceremony that involves washing out of the 4 eating bowls, silent mindful eating and after the last grain of rice has been consumed, cleaning out the bowls with hot water, then polishing them with a cloth and setting the bowls back inside one another. I love the stillness in which we all eat, and I am amazed afterwards what a difference it makes to concentrate on each bite. I’ve eaten half what I normally would, of completely vegetarian and simple food and feel more satisfied than I have with a meal in a long time. Something to take back with me when my temple stay is over.
After a quick break, we do another round of Sunmudo training. In truth, my thighs are already a little sore from the previous night, but I’m determined to do it! 90 minutes later we finish the training and have a little tea ceremony with the Frenchie. He’s actually been less friendly than I would expect of someone who’s a monk in training, but can only assume that 5 years on a mountaintop with Korean monks would probably drive anyone insane. We ask him some questions about his training, only to find out that..indeed he is NOT a monk in training. He’s there for the martial arts training. As he puts it ”i likes ze principles and ze beliefs of the monks, but zhey are not free, I wants to be free. I wants ze family and to get marry and…use ze penis”… (ok., ok.he didn’t say that last part, but we all knew that’s what he meant.) I have to give him some respect for surviving 5 years of training with a massive language and cultural barrier and no booty either. That’s dedication.
Just when Julian, Anne (my roommate for the Temple stay) and I thought our day was over, we get called back by Frenchie for the final meditation. We have a choice- 108 bows or a mindful hike up the mountain. We all vote for hike, it’s a gorgeous day and I’m not sure my thighs are going to last for any more squatting. Just as we’re about to embark up the path, Frenchie calls out- “and juz be careful of ze snakes. remember when you hear ze rattle…gets out of ze way”. Well, that put an end to that. Anne and I vote against hike, I mean I love a good hike, but rattlesnakes are another thing. Who knew Korea had rattlesnakes? I’m learning something new everyday. Off we go to do 108 bows.
We make a new friend- Anne who joins us for our next adventure. A day at the beach in Gampo, where we all end up spending the night at a Minbak after skipping stones on the beach, sleeping-me, copious amounts of drinking, ingesting of fresh raw fish- hwe, more sleeping-me ,while Julian and Anne run around on the beach taking photos in the middle of the night. Minbak’s are kind of like b&b’s without the second b and infinitely simpler. It’s a relatively empty room equipped with blankets, pillows and bathroom. We rented a room from a woman who had a semi-shady establishment overlooking the beach. In true Korean style, we all slept on the floor. Actually, I did most of the sleeping; on the beach, in the car, in the middle of the card game. It was a good thing Anne came along or Julian would have been seriously bored watching my tired bones try to catch up on weeks of sleep deprivation at various inappropriate hours.
The next day all of our bodies were screaming from the two days of hardcore training. If I thought a squat and pee was hard before….squat and pee after having done some intense bow trainings as well as 3 hours of kicking, lunging, stretching, was something akin to torture. As luck would have it, every single f-in toilet I would encounter in the next 2 days would be of the squat and pee variety. Aigoo chamna…Happy Birthday Buddha!
Julian and I go back to the temple to catch the celebration and Sunmudo demontration in honor of the Buddha’s Birthday. The whole country is on holiday, as in apparent in the traffic we encounter when driving back to Golgulsa after dropping Anne off at the bus station in Gyeongu. We make it back up to the mountaintop just in time as the Sunmudo demonstration is starting. I watch in awe as the head monk leads the others in a beautiful presentation of the form. It reminds me of Ana Forrest, my yoga teacher/mentor. The intent concentration and presence in his eyes as he gracefully flows from move to move. There are some more presentations of different Sunmudo forms before the day melts into a surreal chain of events.
Happy Birthday Buddha! And what better way to celebrate than to bring out 13 year old girls, scantily clad, and belly dancing to some very loud pop music? Seriously…am I in Korea? I look around me as I watch old men and woman smile and clap their hands to the music, a few foreigners doing the temple stay are trying to conceal their drool, while reminding themselves…they’re only 13, they’re only 13. I scan the crowd trying to figure out just where their parents might be. I mean, for f-sakes, my mother would throw a hissy fit every time my strap from my Playtex, nearly A training bra slipped under my very baggy short sleeve t-shirt (something that would never have happened if she would’ve just acquiesced that at a “nearly A” I just didn’t need to wear the fucker) and here were girls bare midriff, bikini top, and seductively undulating their hips in moves they just are too young to have already mastered! To add to the bizarro…the little monklet boys then proceeded to do a magic show accompanied by the loud strains of the James Bond movie theme, afterwards which they did a choreographed dance with some other of the Sunmudo boys to a k-pop song called “Poppy” (a song sung and danced by a cutesy girl band…the boys imitated all their moves..) Happy Birthday Buddha!
Its become very apparent that the Korea I’ve heard about, from stories my mother and father told me, is not the Korea that exists today. I wonder if immigrant populations that resettle in a new land cling more staunchly to old school principles and beliefs. The Korea they knew and reminisce about is a Korea that disappeared years ago with the fast and rapid development that has made Korea one of the strongest economies today. It’s clear that on some level, while still remaining patriarchal (its impossible to throw away a history based on Confucious principles in a mere 20 years), the new generation is allowed certain freedoms that I certainly never was. I can only laugh when I think that wearing anything more than a few inches above the knee was taboo for me, when I see these girls today wearing skirts so short, they need to clutch their asses when walking up the stairs to avoid a complete- I see London, I see France-situation. More curious is the fact that while- who wears short shorts? They wear short shorts…any hint of cleavage or bare shoulders is strictly forbidden. I can watch groups of girls walk by in skirts all but exposing their asses, but the fact that I am wearing a shirt cut low enough to catch an almost glimpse at my not so incredible cleavage will cause heads to turn so fast, they give themselves whiplash. Wonder what would happen if I exposed a tiny bit of my black lacy bra as well?
After the celebration ends, Julian & I decide to head back to Daegu early to avoid the heavy traffic. We make it home in record time on the tollway. Interesting fact- according to Julian, Pak Chung-Hee, president of South Korea in the 70’s visited Germany and was extremely impressed with the autobahn system that Hitler developed. He decided to build his own autobahn running from Seoul to Busan, despite heavy protest about misappropriation of funds, (there weren’t enough cars to really justify this road) which was largely responsible for the economic growth that spurred Korea on to the powerhouse it is today because it allowed the rapid transport of goods between Seoul and Busan- a major port in Korea. I guess it was an – if you build it, it will come situation. Supposedly, when you ask a Korean about Hitler, they say…Hitler- he built good roads. So this “good road” landed us back in Daegu in record time, and we made plans to meet some more of Julian’s friends for dinner and drinking.
The Hobak-jeon place Julian tried to take us to in downtown Daegu was closed, due to the holiday. As it turned out, a lot of places were closed that night, but we found our way to a small country style restaurant where we were served a fantastic fish-zzim. What kind of fish, I couldn’t really tell, but it was just the right blend of spicy, salty, and savory. There was a particularly good assortment of banchans that I liked, including a zucchini-jeon. I had my first taste of Makgeolli, a rice wine that can be drunk either alone or mixed with 7-up, or as Koreans call it- ci-dah! Makgeolli kind of reminds me of Federweisser. They are both young fermented beverages that go down easily and can really get you drunk. 2 bottles later, we headed off to a wine bar and its when I realized that, every night in Korea is a night for drinking.
As my cousin Peter calls it. Korea is a land of functional alcoholics.
In the past week I have seen more alcohol consumed on a daily basis by the people I’ve been with than I’ve normally seen on any night out in Berlin. Koreans, and the foreigners who end up living here, can seriously drink! I think it’s fair to say that in 5 days I’ve had more alcohol than I’ve consumed in the past 3 months. After the wine bar we go to yet another bar where we are joined by another friend of Julian’s and her boyfriend. The wine is making me daring, and I challenge Julian and one of the Korean guys to a beer chugging contest. The loser buys all the drinks. Now, let me just preface this by saying…this is a contest I have never lost. I prided myself during my college years for outdrinking anyone that came my way. Maybe not in quanitity (I’ve always been a cheap date ; ) ) but in speed. Flashback- Brussels, my friend Barbara and I, on our backpacking trip were at some bar surrounded by noisy American frat boys, a challenge was thrown down, 2 glass boots of beer were brought out, the frat boy left covered in shame. So imagine my surprise when Julian beats me by a full second. Damn! 4 years in Korea has given him some serious skills. I’m out of practice. A rematch is demanded…this time I have to admit my defeat…but at least I beat the Korean dude. haha.
2 cups of Makgeolli, 4 glasses of wine, 2.5 beers later, I’m surprised that I’m still standing and that i haven’t yet gone to the bathroom to spew. Maybe Korea is rubbing off on me, but that’s about 6 drinks more than I can normally handle on any given night.
I’m experiencing that pleasant sensation people like to call- drunk. so this is what that feels like. I normally have 2 beers and stop, or have another beer and end up losing my lunch then falling asleep. Maybe its the Makgeolli, maybe my body just actually responds to rice based alcohol better? If I cared to be a hardcore alcoholic, I would explore this new world of Makgeolli and Soju, but I’m secretly glad that I’ll be heading up to Seoul in the morning where I can take a break from drinking for a few days while visiting my aunt. In my drunken state I exchange some brash words with one of Julian’s friends we bump into on our way to finding a taxi. It’s a good thing that no one would ever hit a woman here and that he was also equally drunk and that we both knew we were talking out of our asses…dear lord. It’s time to take a break.