Sunday 20 November 2011

Seoul Forest

I don't know if I'm more aware of Autumn this year, or if it is a particularly good year for it but I've begun to realise that I love this season. It's been chilly in Seoul for a few weeks, some days are warmer than others but we're not up to bone-chilling cold yet so going out to experience the colours of the trees, the crisp weather and crunchy leaves has been a pleasure! Last weekend I ticked another thing from my list and went to Seoul Forest. Less of a forest than a large area of parks and sections with animals it was a pleasant way to spend a few hours. As with most of Seoul there was a coffee shop near-by where we sat for a while watching the wind pick up and leaves swirl around. Seoul Forest in a short walk (signposted) from Ttuksom Stn on the green line (number 2). You can feed the Deers, watch the rabbits and guinea pigs, play on the slides or just wander around. Highly recommended!

Deer food

Sand Diggers! 

There's also some art sculptures in one area of the park

Saturday 19 November 2011

An Autumn Sonata

Last week we went on a teachers trip with school. I was quite excited because I've never been on a proper trip with school. Once a month we have a wednesday afternoon where each grade's teachers go out together to 'bond'. This usually means we go to the cinema, or out for a meal. Every now and then the teachers are busy and can't spare the afternoon off and I usually get to go home early. Once a year the school's budget is stretched to a big trip away somwhere. Apparently it used to be for an overnight trip, but as teachers with children couldn't participate in that one, and the district office cut the budget for teaches social events, now it's just an afternoon/evening thing. So we were taking our big trip this year to Nami Island. It is a small island in the bukhan river. It's a popular place for tourists (particularly the Japanese) because it was the setting for popular K-drama 'Winter Sonata'. All around the island there are pictures and signs showing screenshot from the show and what happened on each spot. The most famous part of the island is an avenue of very large trees which also appears on the ticket to enter the island. 

In 2006 the Island 'officially' declared it's a republic and the ticket declares itself your 'entry visa' which you have to show when passing through 'immigration' onto the ferry. All very cute-sy. Our trip started with a coach ride from school. Sometimes I wonder how Korean's keep their svelt figures because, at school at least, there are so many snacks dolled out constantly! This trip was no exception as about 10 minutes into the journey a box of clementines began being passed around (ok so they're not fattening, but...), following that was boxes of popcorn and bottles of water. Shortly after that the teacher organising the trip came round handing out small goody bags packed with twix bars, chewy sweets, sweet and savoury biscuits, chewing gum and tissues (very handy with the cold I've now caught!). Also on this goody bad was a small sticker with a number printed on it. This was my raffle number. Korean raffles are not like ones in the UK, everyone gets a prize... We found out what we'd won on the way back and I was the lucky recipient of a dish scourer, Handy I suppose.

It was a pleasant journey, and it's always nice to get out of the city centre and away from the sky scrapers. So away we headed into the countryside. I'm very used to making journeys out of a city and into the countryside, as with Essex's proximity to London we pass from rolling green fields in Ongar (in the car) to Epping (onto the underground) and into central London through stratford. Something I've become very aware of since moving and travelling around Korea is just how green it is at home. In Korea the colour of the coutryside is grey and brown. Even the green that is there, grass, leaves, bushes, are a faded colour. I assume this is due to the climate, so next time you're cursing the random downpour in summer or rain at your BBQ remember that it's the rain that makes our countryside so vivid and beautiful.Anyway it is still nice to get out to a place not be surrounded by buildings.

When we arrived we took the ferry over to the island and after strict instructions (be back at 'Mr Dokgalbi' by 6 or else no dinner) we headed off to explore and wander around the island. It was a lovely day, the autumn colours were everywhere and as it was mid-week there were hardly any other people about. The scenery was great and the only negative thing about the afternoon was having to run away from the crazy wild ostrichs who live on the island. They're not contained and wander where ever they want. They are also not freindly, one of our 5th grade teachers got pecked by one while waiting for the ferry back to the mainland!

As Wendy and I had found out on our earlier trip to this area of Korea, the famous dish in these parts is dak galbi. A chicken dish which gets cooked in front of you. It's a little bit spicy and that was what we had for dinner. After we'd finished eating, we had a school quiz. Obviously everything was in Korean so I couldn't answer any of the questions, but regardless we all received a free lottery ticket (correct quiz answers afforded an extra ticket). On the way home we listened to the lottery draw but there was not a winner amonst us! Overall this was a great trip and one that is well worth it if you're looking for somewhere to go out of the city.

Coach snacks

A little train which goes around the island
The famous avenue of trees

People stacks stones on top of one another and make a wish

The characters in the story made a snowman before their first kiss, so there is a model snowman to recreate the scene, come rain or shine!

Site of the main characters' first kiss

Din dins
chopsticks are great, but here's clear proof that sometimes a knife would work better.
Naughty Ostrich

Wedding fever

The only picture of the wedding party I could get.
This weekend I went to a Korean wedding. It was a pretty last minute thing, I mean I was technically invited, but that's only because every teacher at school was invited. Korean weddings invites are dolled out to anyone from the bride and grooms place of work, and if they happen to be a teacher, who out here move schools every 5 years that can mean from their previous schools too. In fact at this wedding the big boss from our school district made an appearance too. So this week my co-teacher Lee Eun Hee (Mrs Lee or April to the students) offered to take me. It's probably a bit of a burden for her when I attend school things because she has a kind of responsibility to look after me and talk to me as I never really know what's going on or who else I can speak to in English, so I'm always grateful when she asks me to come to things with her. So on Saturday I made my way over to sinpung station and waited for her to collect me from exit 4 (I really am kind of like a small child she has to look after!)

Faux-European style?
 We entered the beautiful (by Seoul standards) building which is teeming inside and out with people. My co-t rushes (we tend to rush about everywhere, I'm not sure if we're perpetually late for things or if this is just her way) up to the second floor. We're at the top of the stairs outside what seems to be the ceremony room. There are two blocks of chairs with an aisle though the middle and an alter/stage at the front. Everything is bathed in blue light. Outside we rush over to a cashier style desk where she picks up a white envelope from the counter. She stuffs inside a few 10,000 won notes. "This is Korean tradition," She says, turning to me. "We give money to the bride and groom for the start of their married life," This isn't alien to me as I know this custom from China, where you give money in red envelopes and even in the UK as today couples prefer money to household gifts. I try to take my own envelope to add my own gift but she waves me away "It's not necessary for you," As much as I'm glad I don't have to part with any money it's sometimes disappointing, as a foreigner, to be treated so apart from everything.

People milling around outside the ceremony room
While we're standing in this atrium area we bump into one of my old Co-teachers who is now on maternity leave. Phew, another guest I can converse in English with! The three of us go to see the bride. Off to the side of the ceremony room are a few smaller booth style rooms. Inside the first is the teacher from our school whose wedding we are here to celebrate. She's sat on a small bench wearing a fantastic meringue style white wedding dress. This is a custom taken from the west, and later she will change into a traditional Korean Hanbok costume. These are very colourful and to be perfectly honest not very flattering so I don't blame her for going for a white Western gown. Hot spotlights bear down on her, I don't envy her sitting there. Surrounding her are an official photographer (with fancy camera), cameraman filming and numerous other people with smartphones snapping away. My co-teachers go to stand with her for a picture. I join in the snapping on my new iPhone.

My co-teacher and the bride
I don't want to intrude, because I only vaguely know her. She's one of the special needs teachers and we usually eat lunch in a group together. But I'm apparently wanted for a photo so I oblige. I can't understand what the photographer wants me to do so I try my best to just smile and look at the right camera. I tell her she looks beautiful because, well, she does, and I'm not sure how much English she understand so pretty sure she'll know that much. 

Back outside in the busy atrium we then rush upstairs and into a large banquet room. The food is excellent. A huge buffet of Western and Korean food, a freshly made to order sushi bar and grill area and amazing dessert section. I've been told that food is the most important part of a Korean wedding. We sit with some of the other Singil teachers along with both our previous and current Vice Principals. 

Everyone has a smart phone these days
My Co-t becomes somewhat of a translator as the current VP talk to me. I'm nervous at first because I can hear him talking to her about one of my other Co-teachers, who there have been a few problems with. I had been called to his office as one of my grade 6 classes complained about our class (I might add my worst grade 6 class who clearly couldn't care less about my lesson which disgruntled me somewhat). I'm soon put at ease however as the previous VP (who I had impressed by downing makoli with last year) asked if I drank soju. I'm fairly certain the teachers at school would be horrified if they knew how much alcohol is involved on a night out with my friends. I reply 'of course,' and am handed a paper shot glass. In Korean culture someone has to pour your drink for you, it is poor show to pour your own, and when they do so you should be holding said glass with two hands. Personally this makes me a little uneasy, as after a few soju shots we are all endowed with a less than steady hand. In fact later on I see one VP pour a soju shot for the other VP only for it to overflow and spill onto tablecloth and trousers. Anyway, for the VP to pour one for me is quite a big deal. A couple of shots are exchanged (I also pour for him) and we're all having a lovely time. He later on offers me his paper cup. This really shows that there is no beef between us as this is a gesture of kindness. To share each others glass is a show of friendship. I just hope he doesn't catch my cold; some Korean customs are less than hygienic...

The screen we watched the ceremony on
While we're sitting eating, my co-t points out a small TV screen in the corner of the room. It's showing the wedding ceremony going on downstairs. The one we're here to celebrate. "See, I told you food is the most important thing at a Korean wedding," 

One more plateful later the other teachers at our table hurry off to get into a picture with the happy couple. We're stuck at the table however, as the VP has asertained that I know who Robin Hood and William Tell are and wants to tell me a story, in English:

"Once upon a time, there was an archery competition. The first man comes out. He shoots his arrow and it goes in the centre of the board. Everyone claps and cheers. He says 'I am William Tell,' But he is lying, He's not William Tell. Another man comes out, shoots his arrow and gets a bulls eye. He says 'I am Robin Hood,' But he's not Robin Hood. He's lying. A third man comes out. He shoots his arrow. It goes up to the sky. It completely misses the board. Everyone is jeering. He turns to the crowd and says..........
'I am sorry,'
Imagine this joke, told with strange English expressions by a tipsy older Korean man. It did actually make me laugh. Not quite as heartily as my VP but sufficiently enough not to offend. He reverts back to Korean and tells my Co-t he's so glad I knew who Robin Hood and William Tell are because at his previous school the foreign teacher didn't know and he couldn't tell his joke. I'm fairly certain they would have got it but I guess it puts me one up on them! I don't mention that I initially got William Tell mixed up with Alexander Graham Bell...

Great food!

We are now a little late for pictures. We rush downstairs but for some reason, that never gets properly explained to me, we don't make it into the ceremony room. We head back down the stairs and out. Passing past a TV screen with today's wedding schedule; 2pm, 3pm, 4pm. Weddings booked all afternoon. From a western perspective this seems like a conveyor belt of weddings, one in one out. It's not much of a special day. The wedding I flew back to the UK for earlier this year wouldn't really have been worth it for a meal and quick photo with the bride. And I can't imagine my friend Jane being very pleased if most of her guests were off scoffing their faces, watching her ceremony on a TV screen in another room.

But then again, I suppose it's the marriage that is more important than the wedding in the end anyway.

The bride and the token foreign teacher

My current and previous Co-teachers.

Thursday 10 November 2011

My Favourite Travel Shopping Find

On the second Wednesday of each month The Travel Belles invite bloggers to to participate  in the “Across the Café Table”  series. A travel-related question is asked and answered as a way to get to know one another, sharing answers “across the virtual café table,”

Living here in Seoul, and being allowed only 20KG baggage allowance when I came over (thanks Korean Air!) I wasn't able to bring everything I would have liked to. Essentials included clothes and toiletries only! So things to make me feel at home in my new house out here had to be easily packed. That's why, if you ever come to my apartment there aren't many trinkets from my travels over the years, just photos of family and friends, and maps from every place I've lived (which it has been commented on more than one occasion make my place look like a classroom). So when I read the latest 'Across the Cafe table' question on Travel Belles, 'What's your favourite travel shopping find?' I had to really think about what I had bought while away. When I travel I tend to take a lot of pictures, and always walk around markets but rarely buy much.

The one thing popped into my head, and that I know I will treasure for a long time is the Traditional Tea set I bought in China. It was one of the first things that I bought to send home.

We'd only been in China for a couple of weeks when the National Day holiday allowed us 5 days off (plus 2 weekends). A few friends and I braved the 48 hour train down to Hainan Island. Looking around the small array of stalls on the way to the beach everyday I saw lots of traditional generic Chinese souvenirs. There were lots of tea sets with various patterns on them. I saw one that I liked, it was a little unusual, blue and decorated with figures rather than simply patterns. One night, aided by a couple of friends I asked the stall owner how much she wanted for it. I can't remember the price, but I wasn't happy with it, and she wasn't interested in barganning. I was disappointed, but as has happened so many times since, I walked off, certain that I would easily find another place selling the same thing where I'd be able to bargain.

Of course that didn't happen and by the end of the week I had to go back to the first lady, tail between my legs and pay the price she'd originally quoted. Thankfully she didn't demand more! The funny thing about this shopping find is that I'd originally thought to give it to my brother as a present and later find another set for myself. Here's the thing: I didn't actually get paid a lot when I worked in China and saved all the money I could for travels. I never did buy another tea set, and after finally being reunited with it when my year away had finished (a friend had taken it back earlier to the UK for me) I never mentioned it to my brother and kept it for myself... It now sits in my bedroom in Essex, awaiting my return!

Similar-ish Chinese set from shutterstock...

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Taipei 101

The most famous sight in Taipei is 'Taipei 101' basically the tallest building in the city. It houses a shopping mall, offices, observation deck, and a few restaurants. It's also got the fastest lift in the world and a significant 'wind damper' inside (which, unbeknownst to me is common in all tall buldings). This one is unusual because it is on display to the public. We spent a while wandering around taking in the view, stopped off for a drink at coco, finished off our take away breakfast, browsing around the supermarket inside before heading back out and off to get ready for another night market (and lots of eating!) FromTaipei City Hall station you can get a free shuttle bus to the building. Out of exit 2 take 101 free shuttle bus (labelled in English).

That's pretty darn fast!

Looking out at the Sun Yat-Sen memorial Hall

Looking East to Seoul

At the end of the long road is the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

Millennium Peace Park

North to the river
Damper mascots
Looking East to London

The famous Damper
It's quite heavy

Out through a jewellery shop

Where to go next...?

Taipei City