Saturday, September 16, 2006

Another grey (yet colorful) weekend in Korea

Before I get to work writing tests for my students (progress reports are due at the end of the week, so they have a ton of tests…sorry!), here’s a few highlights from my weekend:

On Friday I experienced many things that are rare in Korea:
- Italian food
- Whole wheat bread! (I found this at a local bakery that has samples of just about every item out for you to try…I’m definitely returning…when I’m hungry…)
- Jeans that fit me. This is astonishing, seeing as the average size in Korea is about a 2, making me super plus sized.
- Snakes on a Plane

My Saturday was more distinctly Korean. My roommate, Diana, and I took a trip to the port city of Mokpo, located to the southwest of Gwangju. Although we hit a few speed bumps (literally and figuratively) on the way there (who knew Gwangju has two different train stations?), we made it to Mokpo around 12:45 armed with instructions of the best (and most touristy) places to go, straight from the mouth of a future maritime engineer who wanted to practice his English slang with us before starting a job in a shipyard.

Even though Admiral Yi, who’s statue, name, and presence are evident all over Mokpo, staved off a Japanese invasion in the last 16th century, the Japanese influence is very strong in Mokpo. From the top of Yudal-San, which rises up out of the lights and buildings of downtown, islands of rock in a sea of tile roofs and winding alleys, we could see the foggy archipelago to the east, as well as the continuous string of ships going in an out of Mokpo’s harbor. Unlike Gwangju and Seoul, which are littered with row upon row (upon row upon row) of high rise apartments, much of the housing in Mokpo consists of small one- or two-story traditional style buildings. Many of them have bright orange roofs or bright orange trim, a feature I have yet to find anywhere else.

Mokpo’s downtown streets are covered with plastic facades lined with light bulbs that turn alleys into light-filled tunnels. Mokpo is a cross between a port-city and an amusement park. At night, spotlights aimed at Yudal-san illuminate the mountains rock formations. If Mokpo were Disneyland, Yudal-san would be Sleeping Beauty’s Castle; Diana and I would be the living Disney characters. We couldn’t go five minutes without being accosted by groups of Koreans (mostly old men and women) who wanted to ask us questions in Korean (which we couldn’t answer) and practice their English (which we couldn’t understand). One woman said “I love you!” as soon as she saw us reach one of the rocky look-outs near the top of the mountain.

Once we passed the many yodeling and singing Koreans (some jockeying back and forth like a human version of dueling banjos) at the little summit, we finally got some peace in the form of hundreds of stairs rising up to Yudal-san’s peak. From there, we could see the other side of the mountain, the shipyard, “raw fish town”, and more islands. Construction had started on a bridge connecting Mokpo to “Long Island” (where Admiral Yi’s shrine stands), and eventually the bridge will look something like Boston’s Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Although the bridge doesn’t exist yet, it has been digitally added to the photograph on the front of Mokpo’s tourist map.

Coming down from Yudal-san, we aimed ourselves in the direction of “Peace Square”, an area with reputable raw fish restaurants. After all, the search for good raw fish is largely what brought us to Mokpo in the first place. We took a city bus to Mokpo’s museum district and then walked over another small mountain (Gatbawi) to Mokpo’s seaside esplanade. We were thoroughly stared at (yet again) as we passed the elderly men smoking cigarettes and eating raw fish and the young hot rods on roller blades passed us. We also ran into a wide concrete park where parents rented tiny electric cars that they drove with their children in their laps.

Mustering up all of our courange and consolidating our limited Korean-speaking skills, we headed across the street to a large tourist hotel (Sangria Hotel, or maybe it was was supposed to be Shangria Hotel, or even Shangrila Hotel…the Romanization of Korean poses many problems) to ask where a good saeng-seon-hoe-jjip, or raw fish restaurant, was. As an army of hotel employees ran around asking each other where one was, I thought “This is Mokpo, shouldn’t there be one on every street corner?” The concierge even called up directory assistance and came up empty handed. However, after a few minutes we learned that “sang-seon-hoe-jjip” is not the same as saeng-seon-hoe-jjip, and we finally got directions. Who knows what we were originally asking for…It really could be anything.

One step closer to our meal of raw fish, we began wandering down the street trying to match the words the concierge had written in Korean on a business card to the signs on the local businesses. This proved harder than it sounded, and eventually we asked a Korean woman for help. In typical Korean form, she went above and beyond to help us, even calling a friend on her “hand phone” to ask where the restaurant was. Finally, once she found out, she led us there, even though it was completely out of her way.

We were finally ready to eat our most adventurous meal in Korea yet. In retrospect, I think I prefer the way Japanese raw fish is served, but it was still an, ummm, interesting experience. There were fish bones and pieces of fish skin everywhere, on the fish filets, in my mouth, coming back out of my mouth. It was quite the experience. Our sliced raw fish came on a bed of clear curly noodle-like things, that I suspect were really some form of seaweed. (I suppose I’ll never really know, though…) My favorite was a whole fish, silver and point-nosed, that came to us skin and all. Once we figured out how to avoid the bones, it was delicious.

After dinner we had another mishap on the city bus (even with a crew of three concerned Korean passengers and the bus driver trying to tell us what to do, it took us three tries to get on the right one). Eventually we made it back to the train station and bought tickets back to Gwangju. We had almost an hour to spare, so we walked back up towards Yudal-san to find a coffee shop. (I kept falling asleep on the bus.) We found one, Café Manon, that had plush soft chairs, really good coffee, thick and abundant fashion magazines, and semi-pop versions of country and gospel songs coming out of the speakers. The building was designed like German beer hall, so it was a very eclectic coffee shop.

We made it back to Gwangju at around 9:10, and then had another bus experience (I am going to be a pro at riding Korean city busses…just give it time…) that landed us downtown. (Our actual desired destination! Amazing!) Initiating a search for a bar that serves imported beer, we ended up at “Miller Time.” This place was…crazy. It was completely packed, and every single person in the bar (except for Diana and me) was drinking draught Miller served in pitchers shaped like giant beer bottles. I got a stout (a stout!) from Australia. Not quite a Guinness, but still good. We ordered nachos, and learned that nachos in Korea are nothing like nachos at all. I think they probably put them together from a picture of nachos. Instead of nacho cheese, we had honey mustard sauce. Instead of salsa, red-plum mixed with tomato. Instead of sour cream, mashed sweet potato. It was…another interesting experience, complete with cole slaw and crispy sweet noodle things.

Ok, that’s about all the blogging I have in me for now. I forgot to take my camera to Mokpo, so unfortunately there aren’t any pictures. I’ll probably return to take a tour of the islands, so hopefully I’ll remember my camera next time.

Back to writing tests…I told my physics class if they all got As on their first test we’ll have an eating contest.

1 comment:

Alice said...

Jordan! I LOVE this update. You're such a good writer. I am looking forward to the eating contest entry...