Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: A Year in Review

The New Year is here and it's a time of reflection.  Most importantly it's a time for lists.  I'm a sucker for lists, especially those with "Top Ten" in the title.  When Times came out with their Top Ten lists for 2010 I spent the length of two Lord of the Rings movies reading through them.  Lists are great!  This year I'm making a few lists of my own but these will only have "Top Five" in the title.

2010 was mostly a year of traveling and teaching English.

Ryan's Top Five Travel Moments of 2010
5.) Fuguo Monastery (January 2010) - In Yunnan Province, China, there is a famous city called Lijiang.  An ancient city with a maze of stone cobbled streets, waterways, and enough souvenirs to fill Tiger Leaping Gorge.  A few of us rented bikes from Mama Naxi and rode to the foothills of the Himalayas.  There we walked our bikes half way up a mountain road until we reached Fuguo Monastery.  We didn't know what to expect but when we arrived we were greeted by a shabby old Monastery on the verge of collapse.  However, an old Tibetan Monk came running out and insisted that we join him inside.  He was learning English and his favorite saying was, "Have a laugh!"  This of course produced laughter.  He gave us cookies, green tea, talked to us in shaky English, and took us on a tour of his broken down Monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas.  "May you have a long life!" he shouted as we rode back down the mountain on our bikes.

4.) The Drive Between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng (January 2010) Luang Prabang is a city of monks and temples.  The streets are dead by 10pm and monks are walking the street by 6am to gather rice from the locals.  Vang Vieng is a city of river tubing, dance music, debauchery, and "Friends" (yes, the show) bars.  These two places in Laos couldn't be any different.  The fascinating thing was the transportation between the two.  In a van of a dozen people we rode up and down huge mountains.  I didn't know mountains this size existed in Southeast Asia!  For six hours we drove up in to the clouds, then out of the clouds, and only stopped occasionally at a roadside baguette stall.  
3.)  Scooters in Thailand (February 2010) - After riding in the back of a Tuk-Tuk, driving a scooter is my favorite mode of transportation in Southeast Asia.  On the island of Koh Phangan, we spent a couple days driving all over it.  We drove to beaches, elephant hang outs, huge trees, a mexican restaurant, and through a drug check point.  "No officer, there are no doobies on my person."

2.) Trekking the Great Wall (May 2010) - I've wanted to see the Great Wall of China since I can remember.  Something about it just attracts me to it.  Maybe it's the sheer massiveness, the beauty of seeing something stretch from mountain top to mountain top as far as you can see.  Maybe it's the history, the years and man power it took to accomplish it so long ago.  Maybe I have a fascination with walls, I don't know.  Anyway, I finally got to see it when I hiked a 6km section where tourists are barely seen.  I hiked from newly restored sections to rundown and untouched sections.  I got see what the wall must have looked like back in its heyday and what it looks like after hundred of years of existence.  I loved it!

1.) Angkor Wat (February 2010) - This massive area of ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples in Cambodia is a clear winner for number one.  There are so many amazing structures that I barely got to see all the ones I wanted to see in three days of exploring.  My favorite temple was Bayon, known as the one with all the faces.  I think my mouth was hanging open for the entire time that I was walking around this temple.  I also enjoyed Ta Prohm, known as the one with all the trees.  I wish I could have spent several more days in that area and I would love to go back one day.

See more pictures here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from South Korea to my family back at home and to my friends all over the place!  We managed to find a little tree and cover it with lights and some ornaments.  There's no shortage of Christmas supplies here, they pretty much observe Christmas, except we get no time off.  We are going skiing over Christmas day with a group of about eight other expats.  It's a good way to spend Christmas when you're half way around the world.  We decided to do the traditional stuff last weekend.  So we opened up our presents on Sunday morning.  Guess what?  I got a Nintendo Wii!  Thanks Caroline and Mom and Dad.  I'm still getting Nintendo for Christmas even after I got the original console like eighteen years ago.  What can I say, I guess some things never change.  Then we had some delicious Christmas dinner with turkey, mashers, stuffing, and all the fixings.  Thanks to Caroline again.  I hope you all have a merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Mario Cart!

 I know I haven't posted anything in a little while.  December has been really busy.  There was a lot of planning going on for the upcoming winter vacation to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.  Also, planning for the ski trip and Christmas festivities.  Then I've been getting ready for English winter camps and studying for my final Korean examination.  I also laid a Hash House Harriers running trail as well.  There have been some good concerts here too.  After Christmas I should have MUCH more free time and I'll get some posts up.  See you later!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Korean Carriage Ride

A few weeks ago there was a festival here in Gwangju and we came across this.  It seems like it's some sort of carriage ride.  The robots were a little to realistic for me.  I couldn't decide if it was only weird or also creepy.  You can judge for yourself.

Robots are taking horses' jobs.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Seoul Much To Do: Chapter 3 - The Flaming Lips Are Really Awesome

"Yes, yes, yes, YES!!" was my response when somebody told me the Flaming Lips would be putting on a show in Seoul on November 20th.  I had seen the Flaming Lips once before at the Wakarusa Music Festival in the summer of 2008.  Before that show I would have called myself a casual fan of the Lips.  I had heard their more popular songs and some hearsay about their live performances.  When I saw them at the Wakarusa festival I was blown away.  It was an experience to behold.  Besides some great music, there were two dozen Teletubbies dancing on the stage for about the whole show, a giant caterpillar, the infamous space bubble, plenty of obscene projections, and two confetti canons that made it snow confetti over the whole crowd.  From that moment I decided to become a fan of the Lips and vowed to see them when ever a chance came. 

Well my second chance came in Korea and I took it.  I over looked the hundred dollar ticket price and the three and a half hour road trip to Seoul from Gwangju.  It was worth it.  Instead of the giant venue of the main stage of a music festival, the show took place in a concert hall made for about two thousand people.  We were close to the action this time. 

Walking on the crowd in the Space Bubble
Before the show the lead singer, Wayne Coyne, came out to make a few "serious" announcements.  With the office accountant like Korean translator standing stiffly by his side, Wayne announced, "We have strobe lights in our show and they're really f**king bright."  He would then hand the microphone to the translator who had to translate the words of the famous American rock star.  "Um, so some people may have a bad reaction.  I also want you to be aware that I'm going to walk out here in my space bubble,"  Wayne kept on advising the good people of Korea.  After about five minutes of hilarious announcements with translations it was time for the show to start.
The players of the band came out on stage from the projection of a woman's private arena.  I guess she was giving birth.  Then Wayne came out in his infamous space bubble and walked on top of the crowd's hands.  Confetti started spraying out of the canons and huge balloons were dropped from the ceiling on to the show goers.  It was like a New Year's celebration in the land of Oz.  The show went on for two glorious hours with all the makings of a great Lips concert.  There were "really f**king bright" strobe lights, giant inflatable animals, some dancers, some serious gong banging, obscene projections, and of course, a bottomless supply of confetti.  It was like an acid trip but without the acid.  So it doesn't matter where I am, if I'm on the other side of the planet I'm going to the Flaming Lips show.

Singing on a Bear

Announcements Before the Show

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wolchulsan: Bad Ass Mountain

Fall Colors
The word Wolchulsan translates to "the mountain that the moon rises from". With Gwangju only being an hour away from the moon's launching pad, it was a good idea to visit it for a weekend. We knew we were going to hike up and back down the mountain, but I don't think any of us knew that what ideas the mountain had for us. We woke up Saturday morning and departed from our motel (or possible love motel?) with the enthusiasm that expatriate backpackers typically have.

The first thing that the mountain did was create a dense fog with about 40 feet of visibility. We arrived at the trail head and took group photos before the six hour "hike" that awaited us. "Let's do this thing!" some one yelled and we were on our way up the trail head. The fog lingered and no one really knew what this thing looked like further than 40 feet up the trail head. "Look at the color of the leaves, they're glorious!" some one mused. "What a day for a hike!" some one boasted. "Hey I think I can see the sun, now we should be able to get a view," I said with a smile. Then a few hundred feet up the trail we emerged from
the fog.

Getting Ready at the Trail Head
Caroline is concerned as she looks through the fog.

"Wow...the mountain is really big," some one said with surprise. "Is that the top? And is that where we're going?" I asked as I pointed to something next to a cloud. A little shocked, we continued on the trail and it suddenly took a sharp turn in the vertical sense. We were soon climbing up large rocks and Caroline was soon panting and falling behind. "You probably shouldn't have put so much in your pack," I advised her with my best Captain Hindsight impression. "I'm going to rip your face off of your face," she replied.

This continued for about an hour until we reached Korea's most heart stopping bridge, properly named Cloud Bridge. It's an orange suspension bridge that hangs between two lofty ridges. We crawl-walked across the bridge and tried not to look down
to the 400 foot gap of air with a rocky bottom. "I'm not really scared of the height as much as I am the fall that would end in death", Caroline stated during the crossing. On the other side of the bridge we continued on our ascent but by narrow steel stairways. The path up started to bottle neck and I was suddenly starting to feel the effects of claustrophobia. This may have been because I was suddenly surrounded by Koreans with nowhere to go but up the stairs or off the side of the mountain.

Cloud Bridge

Ah, there's the mountain.

Let's take a moment to discuss Korean hiking culture. My usual hiking experience has consisted of wearing somewhat acceptable footwear, carrying a pack with some liquid and snacks, and taking in the scenery with nowhere to go but where I am at that moment. I like to call it a leisurely activity and I have always thought this to be everyone's point of view. No sir, not in Korea. The Koreans have turned hiking in to a full on sport. They must all shop at the same store or from the same catalog because they're definitely wearing the same uniform. It consists of black form-fitting pants and your choice of a neon yellow, neon red, neon green, or neon pink long sleeve shirt. The uniform also requires you to use two hiking sticks that look similar to something I would use when I'm skiing down a mountain in Winter Park, Colorado. The pace that they hike is more of the pace one takes during a half marathon. The English word for hiking must translate to "running around a mountain in matching outfits." The Koreans have some weird cultural differences but this one is definitely in the top three. I think it would be like if a poor Chinese farmer stumbled upon the Tour de France. "They do WHAT with bikes?" the poor Chinese farmer would think.

Ski Poles

During the hike up, at least a hundred of these Korean Lance Armstrongs passed us by. Young or old, it didn't matter. Most were polite and even said "hello". Occasionally one person would laugh and shake his head as he flew up the mountain. "Is there like some f**king pot of gold at the top of this mountain?" I though to myself. We were soon done with most of the hike to the peak and realized we were at a very high elevation. That's when we found the best place for a picnic ever. I'm being seriously here.

We had come prepared with crunchy peanut butter, jelly, Nutella, bread, an assortment of delicious fruits, and tasty chips. Our lunch took place on an over hanging cliff where you could see miles in to the distance, thousands of fall colored trees, and the Wolchulsan peak. Just perfect. After the rejuvenation of the food we made the last push to the peak which involved several more steep inclines, steel stairways, and crowds of neon colored Koreans. The peak of Wolchulsan in one of the most beautiful sights in Korea. At the top I caught my breath and realized why I had just spent three hours almost climbing straight up a mountain. I think it was definitely worth it. Luckily the next three hours were mostly at a downward angle where we sometimes encountered steep inclines and one large penis shaped rock. (Hey, they are the ones that made a sign to point it out, I'm just passing it along.) Overall, Wolchulsan was a great experience. 

Last Push to the Peak

View from the Peak

Chris and Caroline enjoying lunch
For Your Information

Monday, November 8, 2010

Seoul Much To Do: Chapter 2 - N Seoul Tower is for Lovers

Thinking of that place to celebrate an anniversary, impress a girl on a first date, or get that spark back.  How about a picnic by a lake?  Or a fancy Italian restaurant?  Maybe an observation tower?  If you happen to be in Seoul, South Korea, the obvious pick is observation tower.  The N Seoul Tower is only 777 feet tall.  Not too tall by comparison to other observation towers, but put that on top of a 798 foot mountain and you're 1,574 feet above the great city of Seoul!  It's sure to take your relationship to new heights.

Thrilling Cable Car Ride

Sweep her of her feet by beginning your evening with a romantic and exciting cable car ride to the top of the mountain.  At the base of the tower you'll find a number of places to solidify your love.  Buy a "lover's lock" and find the perfect spot to tell her that she's found the combination to your heart.  You can then lock up your love together on a lock tree or lock railing where it will remain forever.

Love Lock Trees

Lock up your love

Take the evening to the next level at the top of the tower.  Light up her smile with a panoramic view of Seoul's dazzling night skyline.  It's sure to brighten up the mood.  Then complete your evening with a dizzying meal at the revolving restaurant at the tower's peak.  Show her that you're a man of high taste.  N Seoul Tower: Rise Above the Rest (and get a pretty cool view).
There's a bright smile!

Night View

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Seoul Much To Do: Chapter 1 - The Secret Garden

Seoul, South Korea is big. Really big. Half of the country's population big. So I'm breaking up my experiences in to several chapters. One big description would take hours of writing and dozens of pictures. And who ever reads this wouldn't appreciate it either. So here is the first of many.

The Secret Garden is only a secret if you don't read any guidebooks, look at any maps, or ask some one in Seoul what there is to do on a perfectly good afternoon. The Secret Garden can be found behind the Changdeokgung palace complex. Built in 1405, the garden was a place where the king could roam around in general freedom, ponder the day, read a book, and think about the best ways to kill Japanese soldiers. Apparently the king should have spent more time in the garden since the palace was virtually burned to the ground several times by Japanese invaders, rebuilt several times, and then burnt to the ground again by those Japanese arsonists. Only 30% of the palace remains today.

So the lady friend and I headed to the palace one afternoon during our time in Seoul. We roamed the palace grounds for a while until we "found" the Secret Garden. It turns out only tour groups and those who joined tour groups were granted entry on to the sacred grounds. After paying a small fee, the next group to be given this privilege was a Japanese tour group and we found our ticket in. (It was only appropriate to venture in to the garden the same way it was done in the 1600's, with a large group of Japanese people.) After pretending to be interested in what ever the tour guide was talking about we began making our own commentary and snapping pictures here and there. "I'm going to say that this pagoda was used for royal foot rubs." "Yes, we better take a picture." "That Asian baby is a pretty cute baby." "Yes, we better take a picture."

So here are some of the best pictures from the glorious Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden. An ideal place to spend an afternoon roaming around and exploring.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Korean Baseball

Beautiful Gwangju Stadium
Baseball.  Ah the great American pastime.  The essential summer event.  A warm evening spent at the ballpark with your best friends or your best gal.  Hot dogs, the crack of the bat, grass, and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame".  Relaxing.....wait relaxing?  Why is a sporting event relaxing?  Oh that's right, because most of the time baseball is boring!  If it wasn't for all those other perks, there is absolutely no reason people would go to a baseball game to only watch baseball.  (Sorry stat nerds.)  Except for the occasional extra base hit, stolen base, diving catch, and strikeout, nothing happens!  Noticed I left beer out of the perks.  Unless you just gained an inheritance or you're suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms, there's no way you're paying for more than one beer at the baseball game.  This is not a sports blog so I'm not going to mention the multiple reasons the sport of baseball sucks in today's America, but there are many.  (Yeah, I'm giving you the stink eye New York Yankees.)

Sorry, I'm not trying to hate on baseball, I'm just trying to point out there's room for improvement.  I really enjoy going to Kansas City Royals games a few times each year even though they are the most consistent team at being terrible.  Professional baseball is just turning in to a forgettable sport behind most others, especially the NFL and NBA.  However, the Korean baseball experience is much different.

Giant KIA Tiger
South Korea has taken America's favorite pastime and turned it in to a baseball game combined with a college football game, and then combined that with a house party.  We were here for only the last month of the regular season but managed to make it out to three games.  We had such a good time at the first one we had to go back for some more before it was too late.  Last year Gwangju's team, the KIA Tigers, were a powerhouse and won the national championship.  This year they were third or fourth from the bottom of the league.  As a result the stadium was maybe half full each time but it was still a rockin' good time.  I can only imagine what last year must have been like. 

1.)  BYOB - The first thing that makes the Korean Baseball experience so great is the "Bring Your Own Booze" policy.  That concept is unimaginable in America.  Maybe even illegal? So bring your own cooler of beer and soju, or buy some booze at one of several stalls outside the stadium that also sell buckets of fried chicken.

2.)  Thunder Sticks - Don't forget your thunder sticks.  You'll be using these with each at bat, between innings, and to hit your friends or your dad.

Baseball Cheerleaders
3.)  Cheerleaders - The KIA Tigers have four attractive women with changing wardrobes that dance on top the dugout between innings.  Then there's the male cheerleader with the megaphone leading the crowd in what seems to be a three hour array of chants.  Then there is the hilarious mascot that once gave the crowd a strip show.  He began with a provacative dance, then removed his over sized gloves, then kicked off his over sized shoes, followed by the fat tiger mascot body, and ended by tossing off the giant tiger mascot head.  This revealed a man in a black full-body suit (like green man) who proceded to break dance for like a minute.   

4.)  General Admission - For seven dollars you can sit practically anywhere in the stadium!

I'm already excited for next season.  I'm going to buy some thunder sticks and chant with the Koreans even though what I'll be saying will be nonsensical.  Are they chanting "We have your laptop" or "Halloween Easter egg"?  In don't ball! 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In Honor of Partial Understanding

"518 Park," I say to the taxi driver in Korean.  It's what I have to say to get back home.
"What?"  he says back in Korean.
"518 Park."
"Say what?"
"518 Park?"
"Yes!  Yes!"
"518 Park.  OK!"  he shouts as he speeds off to what I hope is the 518 Park.

The language barrier that exists for me can pose several problems.  Like when ten of us head to a bar and order pitchers of beer.  Then the server comes back with a single 12 oz bottle of OB Beer accompanied by two glasses.  "No, no, bigger!" we say as we enlarge the single bottle of beer through hand gestures that look like we are recreating an explosion.  The server eventually understands and comes back with two gallons of beer resulting in the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Partially understanding each other has become a daily occurrence between me and the majority of my encounters with the Koreans.  This has led to advancing my skills in pantomiming, gesturing, and the use of props.  Skills that will later be useful in America when there's a game of charades.  For example, I was looking for a lamp in a store that didn't require batteries, so I picked up a "batteries required" lamp and diplayed it to the clerk.  "Eh?" I expressed as I pointed to the lamp.  This got a "Yeah, whataboutit?" response.  But then I took my thumb and index finger and created an imaginary cord from the side of the lamp by looking like I was pulling out some string.  "Aaaahh?" I asked.  Then my imaginery cord eventually led to a real wall where I plugged it in through imagination.  "Huh?  Huh?" I asked.  The clerk responded with an understanding "Aaahh OK!"  Then the clerk used his pantomime skills buy creating an X with his arms as to say that this item is not in stock.  But we had fun!

The theme of partially understanding comes up a lot while traveling in a foreign land.  You're not always sure how things are done but you eventually get the hang of it.  You're not always sure what's going on around you but you generally know if it's good, fun, serious, or time to get the hell out of there.  I view it as part of the adventure.  It mixes things up and makes things just a little less ordinary.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Where Am I?

On August 18th, 2010, I landed at the international airport in Incheon, South Korea.  I had my lady friend, Caroline, by my side as we took a bus journey south to Jeonju University for a required 10 day orientation before we started working as ESL Teachers.  After 10 days of lectures, Korean cafeteria food, physical exams, horrible attempts at learning Korean, and meeting dozens of new friends, we were prepped and readied to begin our new lives as teachers.  So we departed the university and headed even further south to our new homes in Gwangju, South Korea.  No has ever heard of Gwangju, so you may be asking, "Gwangju?  Where the hell is Gwangju?"  Like my geography professor once said, "Yo, check out the map!"

So far I think Gwangju has been great.  It's South  Korea's sixth largest city with a population of 1.5 million.  So it's not overwhelmingly huge and it's definitely not a small town.  So there's plenty to do and it's easy to get around.  My apartment is situated in what they call the "new downtown."  I'm pretty much next door to the massive city hall and there's plenty of great restaurants and coffee shops in the surrounding area.  On most days there's a guy right outside my door manning an American Style Hot Dog cart.  I consider myself pretty lucky.  The apartment is pretty nice.  It's a little lacking in the furniture department but it came with a bed and heated floors that should be fun to use in the winter time.

Anyway, I want to try to post on here once a week.  If nothing interesting happens for a while, then it might take a couple weeks.  I'll share pictures and stories of my experiences for your viewing pleasure.