From March 2008

Return to Beijing

After saying goodbye to Seoul on Sunday morning it was soon time hop over the Yellow Sea and say hello to Beijing early afternoon. With some excitement my plane descended through the thick smog and the city emerged to once again reveal its mystical intrigue…

I was lucky enough to be met by some old friends at the airport who helped me find my hotel (not far from Xizhimen subway station) and familiarise me with the local busses which are near impossible to use as the route signs are only written in Chinese. After this it was high time for dinner so we headed for a rather stylish Sichuan restaurant in a local department store.

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My last encounter with Sichuan food was mind blowing to say the least and this time was no different. With dishes straight from the fiery depths of hell this is one culinary experience you (or your taste buds) are not likely to forget. The Chinese even have a phrase for it: Ma La Teng, meaning your tongue will loose all sense and it’s hot! Not for those with a delicate palate.

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We had three main dishes ~ beancurd (the yellow stuff in the bowl), extremly spicy BBQ beef sticks and Shui Zhu Yu fish (above) cooked in boiling oil with chillies. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire but as with most Chinese cuisine I loved it! More here.

Nami Island

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The plan on my second day in Chuncheon was to visit a waterfall and then get a ferry to an inland island. This was all going to plan until we got off at the wrong train station and ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere which also happened to be devoid of any type of public transport. Walking back was definitely out of the question and so against my better instincts it was time to ask for help. In the end a pair of exotic peaches saved the day when we used them as a bribe to hitch a lift to the nearest town. Luckily the driver wasn’t a crazed psychopath!

A bus trip and a hike up a snow laden trail later we eventually made it to Gugok Waterfall (구곡폭포) which at this time of year was completely frozen and is apparently a popular place for intrepid climbers although there weren’t any there that day.

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Away from the ice and snow Nami Island (남이섬) was a very different proposition. The island, which sits in the middle of Cheongpyung Lake, is about 6 kilometers end-to-end so is easily walked around and is accessible by ferry. Famous for its beautiful tree lined roads, the island and the surrounding area is well known for the tv drama Winter Sonata which was filmed there in 2002 attracting many fans on pilgrimage.

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After a pleasant couple of hours here it was time for some late lunch and in true Korean style Bulgogi (technically Sam-gyeop sal or 삼겹살 to be precise) was the order of the day, cooked on the back of a metal turtle no less! If you don’t like spicy food then going to Korea is probably a bad idea as about every single dish I’ve ever had there has been hot to some degree (which I love).

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So ended my excursion to Chuncheon and it was time to head back to Seoul for my last night in South Korea before my trip to Beijing the following day.

Cheongpyeongsa Temple

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After arriving on the northern shore of Lake Soyang we walked through a ramshackle village in semi-hibernation (presumably closed for the winter season) and followed the winding track up the mountain side beside a small stream through a forest of pines and maples. The mountain had a somewhat eery and desolate feeling to it, probably due to the depressing weather, but after about 30 minutes of walking we reached our destination – Cheongpyeongsa Temple.

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Built in the Goryeo Dynasty (10th century) the temple is one of the most popular in the country having survived the ravages of the Korean War and we were lucky to have the place almost to ourselves – all the monks must have been off meditating somewhere! Wandering amongst the snow covered pavilions you could almost picture what this place must have been like before it became a tourist attraction.

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I particularly liked the brightly coloured lanterns hanging from the ceiling near the entrance which gently swayed in the silent breeze in an almost ghostly fashion. As with most temples I am always amazed by the intense attention to detail that every aspect of the craftsmanship exudes, something which is sadly lost in most modern architecture. There isn’t a huge amount more to say about the temple (unless you have an interest in Buddhism) so I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking…

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You might have thought that I’d be bored of temples after the number I’ve seen over the past few years but they still hold a strong mystical quality which always fascinates me and you can be sure there are a few left in this episode 😉

Chuncheon & Soyang Dam

On my fifth day in South Korea I headed east by train to Chuncheon, the capital of Gangwon province, a much quieter affair than Seoul with more of a country feel to it – they obviously don’t see a huge number of westerners here as the stares I got were far more pronounced. I’ve often been mistaken for an American whilst in Korea due to the massive US Army presence there but in general I’ve found people to be a little more gracious if they know you’re not one of them!

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Arriving around lunchtime it was time to find some food and as Chuncheon is famous for its “dak-galbi” (닭갈비), a spicy stir-fried chicken dish with vegetables (as seen before), it only seemed a fitting place to start. In fact Chuncheon has a whole street with restaurants which serve nothing but dakgalbi so there was plenty of choice!

“Dakgalbi is prepared by marinating chopped chicken in spicy red pepper paste with peppery seasoning for about one day. Cabbage, green onions, sweet potatoes, and cylinder shaped rice cakes are then added and the ingredients are all placed in a large cast iron pan. The mixture is then typically stir-fried at the table… Dakgalbi can be enjoyed on its own or wrapped in lettuce leaves for a fresh, crunchy sensation. After most of the Dakgalbi has been eaten, rice is then stir-fried with the remaining sauce in the pan.”

If this has wet your appetite you can learn how to cook it on mykoreankitchen.com 🙂

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Once my stomach was full it was time to find a bus to the next place of interest, namely Soyang Dam. Whilst I was waiting a van laden with bananas pulled up and started flogging them to the oldies also waiting – I couldn’t quite imagine spending my whole life selling nothing but bananas but it is nice to see a place where there is still room for this sort of individual enterprise.

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After a rather hair-raising bus trip up the side of the valley (more on this later) we arrived at the top of the largest sand gravel dam in East Asia which commanded an expansive view over Lake Soyang. Build in 1973 the dam rises 123m with a depth of 530m and a gross storage capacity of 29 billion cubic meters of water – it was built for the purpose of flood control, water storage and hydroelectric power production. It’s an impressive feat of geoengineering but pales in comparison to what’s been done to the Yangtze River in China.

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Walking down to the lake’s edge you can take boat for the other side and the untold mysteries that the misty Majeoksan mountains had yet to reveal… To be continued.

Jackie’s Kitchen

So it turns out the Jackie Chan, the venerable Hong Kong action film star, has his own chain of restaurants serving his “favorite noodles & dim sum”. One branch can be found in the massive COEX mall located in the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea. With over 800 restaurants to choose from (yes, eight-hundred!!) the mall is a little hard to digest and unless you are heavily into shopping (I’m not) then there isn’t much more to do than marvel at the scale of consumerism on display here (with the possible exception of the Kimchi Museum).

COEX Mall
Photo by riNux

Getting back to the food… we ordered a selection of (rather expensive) dim sum and noodles but I have to say I was disappointed. Whilst the food was palatable it did not live up to my expectations, especially in the dim sum department, which didn’t seem particularly fresh – as this review also notes they probably cook it from frozen.

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Whilst there is a certain novel value to the restaurant I’d probably give it a miss next time.

Jogyesa Temple

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Jogyesa is a small but important temple in the Jogye order of Korean Buddhism – located in the heart of Seoul it seems strangely out of place surrounded by high-rise offices but offers a quiet haven in the mist of the bustling city. On a rather overcast Thursday morning I paid it a short visit…

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Built in 1910 it is famous for its colorful paintings of the Buddha’s life and teachings as well as the 500 year-old white pine tree which stands proudly outside (purportedly brought over from China). The temple is in active use and at the time I visited gentle chanting could be heard emanating from the main hall with many followers coming and going through the large lattice doors making for a different atmosphere to the temples found in the mountains.

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Once a year in May the temple holds an impressive lotus lantern festival to mark Buddha’s birthday which would be well worth seeing if you’re in the vicinity at that time.

Jjimjilbang (찜질방)

Slowly roasting yourself alive has never really appealed to me but having heard good things about the highly popular family saunas (Jjimjilbang) in South Korea I decided to give it a try on the Wednesday evening.

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N.b. All the photos in this post were found on Google

Upon arrival you are given light cloth uniforms (blue for boys, pink for girls) which you get changed into then head for the general relaxation area where you’ll see both young and old lounging around on the wooden floor watching TV, playing games and some just having a nap. Off the main area there are various hot and cold rooms of varying temperatures, from the mild to the extreme, as I was soon to be made painfully aware.

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Unwanted attention!

Starting of in a 30 degree room lined with reflective foil tiles it seemed fairly pleasant, just like a hot summers day, but this was just the warm up. After about 10 minutes I moved into a 60 degree brick built room shaped like a conical furnace and was immediately hit by the intense heat. Now I could see why they give you a small towel to mop your forehead with! The people around me seemed to be far more accustomed to this; some were lying down seemingly asleep while others were sitting around having a chat with their friends and families. After about 15 minutes I decided it was time to get out (before I passed out) and headed for the marble-lined cool room. When I was feeling a back to normal I had a wander around and explored some of the other rooms, one full of salt, another lined with sweet smelling pine tree logs and an “oxygen” room which I assume had higher O2 levels. It was then that I noticed a small door in the corner of the main area…

Sauna caves
Photo by jasonunbound

Looking more like a dungeon than a sauna this room was dimly lit and I was well informed that it was kept somewhere between 80 to 90 deg C!! Figuring that I had to try it at least once I ventured cautiously inside. To say it was hot would be an understatement, it was suffocatingly burning hot. I instantly felt my heart rate increase and the beads of sweat began forming like some sort of strange unavoidable osmosis. The natives were clearly finding my feeble presence amusing, especially when I turned my towel into a sheep head. I’m rather glad I couldn’t understand what they were saying in this instance! 5 minutes of this torture was enough so I swiftly headed for the ice room which was a welcome relief!

After all this I felt surprisingly relaxed and refreshed which I’m sure is why many Koreans visit them frequently, some even treating them like a second home (they are open 247). Read more about them here which includes details of the best in Seoul.

Han River & 63 City

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After a pretty intense beginning to my travels Wednesday was a little more relaxed – I ventured south again to the Seoul’s main tributary, the majestic Han River. As rivers go the Han is very broad at over 1km wide but only 514km long and was historically used as a trade route to China before the country was divided. Today river traffic is mostly limited to tour boats and to that end I took a 1 hour ferry round-trip which was pleasant but rather unremarkable for what could be seen along the river banks (mostly high rise apartments). It probably would have been better to go at night when you can see Seoul on in all its neon glory.

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Along the rivers northern edge is a cycle path so for a nominal fee (3000 won / £1.50) I hired a bicycle (a tandem no less!) and spent another hour “speeding” along trying to avoid the Tour de France professional-looking types and generally stay upright at the same time as taking photos! It was a bit hard going as the wind was blowing a fair gale but coming back I had more of a chance to appreciate the ride and bask in being on the opposite side of the world from the stresses of my usual routine.

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One of the buildings you can’t help but notice is the striking 63 City skyscraper (photo top, interior above), once the tallest building in Asia for a short time, it stands out because of its gold reflective glass windows. I’ll leave you to guess how many floors it has! Whilst the building is primarily office space there are a number of attractions for visitors including an aquarium, observation deck and IMAX cinema. The lobby has a stylish interior with cool lighting that gradually changes color and huge plasma screens embedded in the walls.

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On the ground floor of 63 City there is a particularly good up-market food court (more expensive restaurants are higher up) where I enjoyed some tasty Bibimbap, a popular Korean meal which consists of a bowl of warm white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables, beef, a fried egg, and chili pepper. You stir the the ingredients together thoroughly just before eating. A delicious and nutritious meal which I will definitely try to learn to cook when I have time.

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Also on the ground floor is the extensive Sea World aquarium with all sorts of exotic aquatic life, including these rather sad looking penguins. I always have mixed feelings about keeping animals in cages, especially when all they can do is wander round in circles, it’s a bit of a pitiful experience. At least the occupants here seemed to be well looked after and in good condition; the sea lions even appeared to enjoy putting on their little display.

After this I took a bus back to central Seoul and had korean pizza for dinner, which for those who are wondering is remarkably similar to “western” pizza but in this case had the addition of prawns!

Lotte World

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Lotte World, opened in 1989, is South Korea’s home grown answer to Disney Land and shares with it many of the same iconic themes to the degree that you have to wonder how they get away with it. The one big difference is that most of the theme park is housed indoors in an enormous enclosure making it the largest of its type in the world (ranked 7th overall worldwide for attendance). Whilst I can’t admit to being a huge fan of theme parks I do like some of the more extreme rides so on my first full day in Seoul I hopped on the subway and headed over to Jamsil to see what all the fuss was about.

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First impressions: This place is off the scale for audacious design, it’s simply massive. With its own ice rink in the centre, monorail and “hot air” balloons travelling around the ceiling amidst the various themed sections and rides you can’t help but be impressed. My friend claims that the car park for the entire complex (including hotel and shopping mall) has over 50,000 spaces but I can’t help but think this is a little exaggerated!

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The rides indoors are a bit of a mixed bag, most are quite enjoyable if a little tame for my tastes – the more extreme ones can be found in the outdoor “Magic Island” section of the park where favourites include Atlantis, Gyro Drop and the Gyro Swing, read on after the break for video’s 🙂 Just as we were about to board the ride car of Atlantis, an Intamin AG Aqua Trax coaster (the only one of its type in the world), my friend casually noted that someone had been killed on the very same ride a couple of years ago really putting me at ease. I figured at a cost of $30m and being Swiss engineered it should probably be safe by now!

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Photo by bweisner

Overall a fun day out, made even more amusing by the sickly couples here who go around wearing matching outfits (see top photo) and the comical double hand waves of the staff (see here and here) who must all be suffering from RSI by now!

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Coming Soon

I’m back from my short expedition to South Korea & China – in short I had a great time; saw some amazing places, took lots of photos, met some interesting people and ate a lot of delicious food! My time in east-asia has often been quite surreal and the last two weeks were no exception. Perhaps it’s a fascination with the unfamiliar which keeps me going back but you can be sure that it this is not a chapter I’ll be closing anytime soon.

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I’m suffering quite a bit from jet-lag and the backlog of work which has greeted me at the moment but in the coming weeks I’ll be posting about it all with a special series planned to examine how Beijing is rapidly evolving and the implications of the upcoming olympics – don’t expect anything too profound though!