A Weekend in Gyeongju

When I decided to stay in Korea for another year I made a promise to myself to see more of the country. Last week, with sunny skies and spring time temperatures on the horizon, I knew I needed to start making good on that promise. After researching a variety of cities on this peninsula I settled on Gyeongju, capital of the ancient Silla kingdom and city of many cherry blossoms.

Gyeongju is located in the North Gyeongsang province near Daegu, about 350 km south of Seoul. I decided to take advantage of the fact that I now get out of work fairly early and head down there on Friday night. Getting from Seoul to Gyeongju is fairly easy. You can hop on a direct bus at Express Bus Terminal in Gangnam (located on Lines 3, 7, and 9) and be there in about 4-4.5 hours depending on traffic. The busses run every 40 minutes- 1 hour and cost 20,000 won (around $20US) each way. There are also trains that run from Seoul but from my research they were either more complicated or more costly. After arriving in the city I grabbed a room at a motel near the station, of which there are plenty.

Arriving on Friday night gave me the opportunity to make the most out of my Saturday. The first thing I did was rent a bike. Biking around Gyeongju is extremely popular and makes getting to the various tourist sites around the city center easy and fast. You can rent bikes at a variety of shops near the bus terminal and they run around 10,000 won ($10US) for the day. After getting the bike I stopped at the neighboring Tourist Information Office, picked up an English language map, and plotted my course.

My first stop was to check out some of the royal tombs at Tumuli Park. Tumuli are mounds of earth that resemble small hills and can be found all around Gyeongju. The ancient people of the Silla kingdom buried their royalty in ornate coffins and then covered them with gravel and dirt to create these domes.  The mounds created and almost otherworldly, peaceful feeling.

I then set out to find Anapji Pond, part of an ancient Silla palace complex. I got a little lost on the way due to my poor map reading skills, but my misstep turned out to be for the best as I was soon found myself on a street lined with hundreds of cherry blossom trees. Tiny pink and white petals were fluttering down from the trees creating what looked like a snow storm of flowers around me as I rode down the narrow brick sidewalk, a kind of spring shower I could actually enjoy. And as luck would have it, when I got to the end of this street, signs directing me to Anapji Pond appeared.

This artificial pond was created in 674 by King Munmu and though it had been destroyed, it was completely reconstructed using in the 1970s and 1980s. Today it is part of Gyeongju National Park and is a nice place to take a relaxing stroll and snap a few photos. There is an admission fee but, like most places in Korea, it is not expensive at 1,000 won ($1US).

As the afternoon was winding down I decided to ride back to  large park I’d passed earlier and relax in the sun. I grabbed a few refreshments and sat next to a Buddhist temple at the edge of a burial mound and enjoyed the first warm weather of the year in a completely Korean way.

When the sun finally set I ventured out to take a look at the cherry blossoms at night. The road leading to Kim Yu Shin’s tomb is know to be the best place to see them after dark, so I headed in that direction, along with the rest of the people in about a 100km radius. Don’t try to drive or take a taxi (you’ll probably be refused by the driver anyway), instead, take the short walk over the river and meander slowly down the lane. The street is so narrow that the trees on either side actually touch each other creating a tunnel of flowers. The trees are backlit with lights of various colors creating a magical feeling and highlighting the beauty of the flowers. If you are in town during cherry blossom season this is not to be missed.

Gyeongju is a great weekend destination for those looking to get away from the big city. As a warning, Gyeongju is a fairly small town. Don’t expect an all night bar scene, an Outback Steakhouse, and a Caffe Bene on every corner. Expect small restaurants, most of which close fairly early, and a few small shops. Come for a weekend of ancient Korean history. Come for the natural beauty. Come for a break from the constant craziness of Korea’s bigger cities.

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Flashback Friday: Cherry Blossom Festivals

I apologize for the lack of posts in the past week. Lack of internet access in the most connected country in the world, holidays, and hospital visits have had me slacking! I return with a Flashback Friday post dedicated to cherry blossoms in honor of my trek down to Gyeongju this weekend in hopes of finding some more of these famous flowers.

I attended my first cherry blossom festival in 2010 in Washington, DC. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and had always wanted to see the blossoms in our nation’s capital. So, when I happened to have the Friday of the festival off I decided to make the 2 hour drive south and check this off the old bucket list.

In March 1912 the mayor of Tokyo gave the city of Washington these cherry trees as a gift to represent the growing closeness of the two countries. Now, every spring a festival is held to commemorate this offering. The peak blooming dates vary by year, so if you are considering taking a trip make sure you do some research ahead of time. The best time to see the cherry blossoms in Washington DC is usually the very end of March or beginning of April, but depending on the weather it can change. For example, this year the blooms were at their peak on March 20, weeks earlier than the average due to some unseasonably warm weather. The National Park Service has a great site, complete with a live Cherry Blossom webcam, that can help you accurately plan your visit.

On this first Friday of April in 2010 I headed straight to the Tidal Basin after arriving in the DC metro area. This is the best place to catch the blooms due to the abundance of trees and great photo opportunities with the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. It really is beautiful, especially in the evening as the setting sun begins to reflect on the monuments and the water, providing the perfect backdrop for photographing the flowers. The crowds here can be rather large, though, so if you can, try to go on a weekday when there aren’t quite as many people.

After you’ve seen enough of the trees around the Tidal Basin, take a walk through the mall. It’s a great place to relax, and you’ll probably spot a few more trees there as well.

How to get to there? Take the Blue Line or Orange line to the Smithsonian Stop. It’s about a half mile walk from there.

Last year I checked out the Yeouido Spring Flower Festival in Seoul. This island in the Han River is known for its concentration of cherry blossom trees that begin to bloom in early to mid April. I wrote one of my first blog posts about this festival last year.

The best place to spot the blossoms is on the street behind the National Assembly building, called Yunjungno. In 2012 the festival will be held from April 13-17 (so, if you’re looking for something to do in Seoul this weekend, check it out!), but like all flower festivals, the dates change every year depending on the weather. In addition to the flowers you can see some traditional Korean dance performances and try a variety of Korean street food snacks.

This festival will be extremely crowded, with thousands of people cramming into this small street and surrounding the trees for the perfect photo opp. The scenery and flowers are definitely worth battling the masses but if you need a break from the action, walk along the nearby Han River for a bit where you can get a nice view of the city with far fewer people.

How to get there? Take Line 9 to National Assembly Station and go out Exit 1. Or a sightly further, but still convenient, way is to take Line 5 or Line 9 to Yeouido Station, go out Exit 2, and walk through the park toward the river.

I’m generally not a flower enthusiast, but I love a good reason to get outside when the weather first turns warm. Cherry blossom festivals provide a great way to get excited about spring. I’m hoping the ones in Gyeongju live up to their expectations!

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Reading List: 2012 Books 1-10

I love to read. Ever since I was a child I would tear through books at lightning speed and be onto the next. My reading slowed down a little in college, and determined to change that I set a goal for myself this year. I am going to read 50 books.

Inspired partly by the recent post at Camels & Chocolate, I decided to share some of my thoughts on what I’ve read this year. I know that many travelers are avid readers, or use reading as a way to pass the time on long bus, train, and plane rides, and I also know that I am always looking for something great to pick up next.

Without further introduction, books 1-10 of 2012:

1. Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines by John U. Bacon

I couldn’t put this down. It is a must read for any Michigan football fan and would definitely interest college football enthusiasts in general. Bacon was given unprecedented access to the team during Rodriguez’s tenure as head coach and the story that plays out is one that seems unthinkable. I really enjoy Bacon’s writing in general, and this book was no exception. This book really hit me hard because of my feelings toward Rodriguez (and Lloyd Carr), which I was forced to reexamine while reading.

2. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

I’ve always meant to read this but just finally got around to it. I like a lot of Sedaris’s essays but I found this book to be trying too hard. The second part, when he moves to France, was much more enjoyable to me, but probably mostly just because I could relate to the cultural and language barriers he wrote about. A decent book but not what I was expecting.

3, 4, and 5. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Whenever I saw someone post about these books I thought they sounded stupid and imagined them to be way outside of my interests. After reading the like 8,000th post about them I decided to bite the bullet. So glad I did. I read all 3 in about 4 days. The first one was by far the best, and though I found the final book to be a little far fetched and contrived, I enjoyed these far more than I thought I would and recommend them to anyone looking for an easy, entertaining read. If there’s anyone left who hasn’t read them.

6. Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann

This book was really hard for me to get into. I struggled for about the first 200 pages. But after that I was hooked. The writing is beautiful, I have a bunch of pages dogeared and passages underlined, and the story was delicately powerful. I felt emotionally drained, but in a good way, when I finished. Don’t get discouraged by the first couple hundred pages should you decide to try this. This coming of age story is well worth sticking out!

7. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

This book has been talked about extensively in the blogosphere. Two kids have cancer and engage in witty dialogue and everyone ABSOLUTELY LOVES IT. Well, everyone except me. I didn’t dislike it. I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t hold the same enthusiasm for it as the rest of the internet seems to. Still, it was well written and the plot line was engaging, and I think it is worthy of a read, even if I’m not shouting it’s name off rooftops.

8. The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan

Since I read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (which everyone should read NOW) last year I’ve become a little bit of a North Korea-phile. This book tells the story of Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean who was placed in a prison work camp as a child and after his release eventually escaped to South Korea through China. Though the translation can be somewhat awkward at times, the book is incredibly riveting and like most books about North Korean, it is so scary that it almost seems unbelievable.

9. Daughters of the River Huong by Uyen Nicole Duong

I actually started reading this last year but I put it down for a while (probably more telling of my thoughts about it than any words could) and just finally got around to finishing it. The book tells the story of four generations of women in a Vietnamese family and while some parts were incredibly captivating, I was never able to fully get into the book. The historical details of colonial Vietnam were woven nicely into the story and, in the end, were what kept me reading. Not the best, but it might be worth picking it up if you are looking for some fiction to accompany you on a trip to Vietnam, especially if you manage to get the .99 Kindle edition like I did.

10. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This is another book that came heavily recommended, from both bloggers and the press. Harbach’s character driven story is a book about baseball that’s actually not about baseball. I sped through the first few hundred pages during a five hour wait at the immigration office one day and just kept on going. The ending was one that I didn’t see coming, one that packed a final emotional punch that had me thinking about it long after I’d finished reading. This book is a must-read.

What are you currently reading? What are your recent must-reads?

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Hiking in Seoul: Achasan and Bukhansan

I don’t have any official statistics, but if I had to guess I would say that hiking is the Korean national pastime. A large part of this is probably due to the fact that about 70 percent of the Korean peninsula is covered by mountains and even in Seoul, the second largest city in the world, you’re never far away from a good climb. As spring slowly washes over the country, you can expect to see more and more older Koreans decked out in head to toe name brand hiking gear ready to hit a mountain.

Last spring I decided to join the masses and hike two of Seoul’s peaks. Before I came to Korea I’d hiked exactly once, in Cinque Terre about 2 years before. Luckily for beginners like myself, most of the mountains, especially around Seoul, aren’t too technically difficult. If you’re in at least moderate shape, you’ll be fine.

I decided I’d start off slow and I headed to Achasan for my first ascent in Korea. Achasan (the suffix san in Korean means mountain) is the smallest mountain in Seoul with an elevation of only 287 meters. It’s the perfect hike for beginners or those in better shape than I who are looking for a leisurely way to spend a couple hours outside. It only takes about 30 minutes to get to the summit and unlike many other Korean mountains there aren’t that many stairs making it relatively painless.

Although it doesn’t boast an impressive height, Achasan provides for some nice views of the Han River, southeast Seoul, and the nearby Gyeonggi Province.

To get there: Take Line 5 to Achasan Station and go out exit 2. Turn left at the first intersection and then turn right at the dead end. Follow the hikers and you’ll find the entrance. There is no entrance fee.

After easily conquering the small Achasan, I decided to set my sights a little bit higher and set out for the summit of Baegundae Peak in Bukhansan National Park. Bukhansan holds a Guinness Book record for having the highest number of annual visitors, so don’t be surprised if the mountain is crowded. I went in early May and didn’t encounter too many people, but I’ve heard of traffic jams up the mountain so be prepared to wait.

After reading some blog posts before the hike, I was a little nervous. This would only be my third hike ever, and at 836 meters, it would be my tallest. The ascent started off slowly with a walk near a beautiful river and very little incline. Don’t let that fool you, though, as the hike soon got increasingly difficult. The path got steeper with rocks and tree roots jutting out everywhere. Then there were the stairs. So many stairs. Once I’d completed those, I reached the scariest part of the entire hike. I would now have to pull myself up an exposed rock face using a metal rope. I’m not the most physically fit person and at this point my body felt like jelly. I was wearing sneakers with little traction. And there was a steady stream of people coming down the same narrow pathway I needed to climb up.

I’d made it that far, though, and wasn’t about to give up. I grabbed the rope and slowly made my way to the top. And, man, was it worth it! My favorite part of hiking is the elation you feel when you’ve made it to the summit and can look out at the world below you. Seeing Seoul spread out before me on that beautiful spring day made me feel like I’d conquered more than just 800 some meters.

I snapped some pictures proving I’d made it and then settled down on the peak for a picnic lunch and a chance to catch my breath before heading (slowly) back down to the city.

To get there: There a few different routes available, but I this is the one I took (after getting lost once). Take Line 3 to Gupabal Station. Go out Exit 1 and take the 704 bus toward Bukhansan. If you are unsure, just follow everyone wearing North Face jackets and you should be on the right track. There may be an entrance fee (around 4,000 won, or $4USD), but I wasn’t charged.

Hiking is a wonderful way to see Korea and experience the generosity of Korean culture. I’ve been offered food, makgeolli (fermented rice alcohol), and numerous hellos and words of encouragement from fellow hikers both times I’ve been on a mountain here. I am looking forward  to getting back out there this spring. Jello legs and all.

Have you hit any really great mountains in your travels? What are some of your favorite hikes?

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Flashback Friday: Springtime in Rome

We’ve finally gotten our first taste of spring like temperatures here in Seoul and it has me in anticipation of what is to come. I’ve mentioned it here before, but I absolutely adore the “transition” seasons. Not too hot, not too cold, and in Korea, not raining every single day. There’s nothing better than finally taking off your winter coat,venturing outside on a sunny day, and taking a deep breath of that crisp, fresh air that only spring can bring.

One of my favorite spring times that I’ve experienced was when I lived in Rome. Spring came early that year and left me with plenty of time to enjoy the city before it got too crowded and too hot. If you’re looking for a time of year to check out the Eternal City, this is it! What are some of the best things to do in Rome during my favorite season?

1. Take a walk along the Tiber.

The Tiber, or Tevere as it is known in Italian, divides the city and is a great place to take what the Italians call a passeggiata when the weather is nice. I would start at Ponte Garibaldi in Trastevere (where I lived at the time) and walk towards Vatican City. On this route, you walk through a variety of neighborhoods and oftentimes will stumble upon stalls selling a variety of times, such as used books. I once scored a copy of the first Babysitter’s Club book in Italian and it made my day. Eventually you willl hit Ponte Sant’Angelo (or Bridge of the Angels, my favorite bridge in Rome), Castel Sant’Angelo, and the large Piazza Cavour which makes a perfect ending spot. There are many restaurants in the area if you want to grab a bite to eat and you are near to many public transport options if you want to get back to where you are staying.

If you want to optimize your walk, grab a gelato to enjoy and head out as the sun starts to get low in the sky. The light at this time of day turns the entire city gold.

2. Catch a soccer game at Stadio Olimpico.

If I didn’t scare you off in my last post about Rome’s crazy soccer fans, get yourself over to Stadio Olimpico to catch one of the last few Serie A games of the season, which ends in April. Both AS Roma and SS Lazio call this 1960 Olympic Stadium home, but I suggest that you don yellow and red and cheer for Roma because as we all know, i laziali sono fascisti (Lazio fans are fascists, a common dig by Roma fans due to history and the supposed right leaning political affiliation of a large part of their fans). Tickets are never hard to find as the stadium is huge and rarely sells out.

3. Grab a drink (or caffé) and people watch in a piazza.

One of my favorite activities, any of time of the year, is to sit in a piazza, chat over drinks, and watch fashionable (and not so fashionable) Europeans pass by. Most tourists head straight to Piazza Navona and while it is conveniently located and there is a large selection of restaurants, most are extremely overpriced. My favorite piazza in Rome is Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. It is located outside of the city center, but near enough that it’s not a haul to get to, the backdrop of the church is beautiful, and the amount of foot traffic provides for wonderful people watching.

The perfect piazza springtime drink? Campari with orange. A little bit sweet, a little bit bitter, brightly colored, and uniquely Italian.

4. Head up to the top of the Janiculum Hill for a fantastic city view.

This list should make it fairly obvious that the Trastevere neighborhood holds a special place in my heart. My last springtime in Rome suggestion takes you back to that neighborhood south of the river. The Janiculum Hill, or Giancolo in Italian, is not considered one of the historic seven hills of Rome because of its location across the river, outside the old city center. Because of this the hill offers a fantastic view of the city’s many domed churches and attractive architecture. In addition to the views, you can check out a monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi, instrumental in the Italian unification movement and inspiration for my tattoo, as well as many parks and monuments.

If none of these ideas sound inspiring, don’t fret. There’s never a shortage of great things to see and do in Rome, especially during the cool spring months!

Have you been to Rome in the spring? What did you think? What are your favorite city dwelling springtime activities?

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The ABCs of Travel

This meme went around the travel blogging community a few months ago, and while I was never tagged (and am a lot late to the party) I thought it would be a good way to get back into the swing of blogging. So, here you go, my ABCs of travel.

Age you went on your first international trip

Besides Canada (which anyone who lives within a 30 mile radius from the border knows doesn’t count), I went to England when I was 12. I actually turned 12 on the plane ride there. This was also the age of my first solo trip as I was visiting my penpal without my family!

Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where

Beer is my favorite drink and one of my favorite ways of getting to know a new place. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for American microbrews (particularly IPAs), but since I’m required to pick something not American, I’m going to go with Estrella Damm. It’s a cheap Catalan beer that tastes good and brings back a flood of memories.

Cuisine (favorite)

I love Mexican. Tacos al pastor and chilaquiles are two of my favorites.

Destinations, favorite, least favorite and why

Favorite: I’m a big fan of Barcelona. Catalan culture is interesting and unique and Barcelona is a wonderful representation of that. Gaudi’s architecture, the amazing nightlife, beach, and variety of neighborhoods make it a great place to explore.

Least Favorite: I really did not enjoy Dublin. I had heard great things about the city but it didn’t really impress me. This could have partly been the weather’s fault as my original flight was cancelled which started the trip off on the wrong foot.

Event you experienced abroad that made you say “wow”

I tend to say “wow” a lot, especially when abroad.

Favorite mode of transportation

I love train travel. Trains stations are a hub of frenetic energy and one of the best places to do some spectacular people watching. Once on board I could stare for hours out the window at the passing scenery. Usually though, the gentle rocking lulls me to sleep before I have the chance to see much.

passing through Lucca on Tren Italia

Greatest feeling while traveling

For me, the greatest feeling is making it to the hostel, tourist site, or restaurant without getting lost and/or ripped off. I have a horrible sense of direction and apparently look like someone who can easily be taken advantage of.

Hottest place you’ve traveled to

Manasquan, New Jersey. No really. It was about 105 degrees Fahrenheit when I was there. I could feel my skin crisping up every second that I wasn’t in the water.

Incredible service you’ve experienced and where

It’s mentioned a lot, but Koreans really take customer service to an entirely new level. They are a very accommodating people, even when you can’t communicate verbally.

Journey that took the longest

I haven’t been on that many long haul trips yet so my longest journey was probably a flight from Detroit-Seoul that I took this Christmas. About 14 hours.

Keepsake from your travels

I don’t buy many souvenirs or keepsakes. If I do it is usually the typical piece of small jewelry. I collect beer glasses, though, so if I hit up a local brewery, I’ll buy a pint glass to take home.

Let-down sight, why and where

I feel traitorous saying this, as Rome is my favorite place on Earth, but I really don’t understand the Colosseum love. It’s an impressive structure from the outside, but I found the inside to be underwhelming.

Moment where you fell in love with travel

I’ve always been the kind of person who hated coming home after a trip but it was when I studied abroad in Rome that I really began to crave travel. There was something exciting about being immersed in a new language and jetting off to a new European capital every weekend. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in

I can’t even remember the last time I stayed in a nice hotel. It was back when I traveled with my parents, for sure. I’m a cheapskate when it comes to lodging!

Obsession—what are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling?

Local beers. Graffiti.

a Bintang on the beach in Bali

Passport stamps, how many and from where?

25. I’d have a lot more without the Schengen Agreement!

the extra pages are waiting to be filled with even more stamps

Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where

The sex museum in Prague was definitely an out of the ordinary place.

Recommended sight, event or experience:

Frühlingsfest, Munich’s spring beer festival, is a must go. The festival is held on the same grounds as Oktoberfest and, while it is a lot smaller, it is also a lot more German. Or a lot less foreign. While I’m sure Oktoberfest is amazing, there’s nothing like standing on a bench singing German beer drinking songs while surrounded by Germans, not Australians. This was one of the highlights of my time in Europe.

Splurge; something you have no problem forking over money for while traveling:

Food. It offers a great glimpse into the culture of a new place. And, really, I just love to eat.

Touristy thing you’ve done

I had someone take my photo while I walked across the infamous Abbey Road crosswalk in London. And I loved every moment of it.

Unforgettable travel memory

It is impossible to pick one, because when I do, I immediately think of something else that is equally as good or better. The ingredient for all unforgettable travel memories? Great people, whether they are old friends or the random folks you just met at the hostel bar.

Visas, how many and for where?

Besides tourist visas, 2. An Italian student visa and a Korean work visa.

Wine, best glass of wine while traveling and where?

I’m more of a beer girl but I always enjoyed cheap wine in Italy. I’m not particular about the type, but it has to be red.

Xcellent view and from where?:

I’m a sucker for a good view so it’s hard for me to narrow it down, but the view from the top of Mt. Bukhan (Bukhansan) in Seoul is at the top of the list. It’s amazing to look out and see the sprawl of such a huge city while you’re standing on the top of a green mountain.

Years spent traveling?

I’ve been traveling at least once a year since I was a baby, but I’ve been on a mission to really see the world for about 3 years.

Zealous sports fans and where?

Roman soccer fans are nuts, to the point where I would be scared to wear the opposing team’s shirt on game day. Fights, and shankings to a lesser extent, aren’t uncommon. Romans are passionate people and their devotion to their team is no different. And on that note, Forza Roma!

watch out, or they'll stab you in the eye!

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Farsickness 2.0

The three or four people who actually followed this blog with any regularity may have noticed the radio silence of the past five months. There’s really no excuse, but I have some good news.

Instead of leaving for my southeast Asian adventure at the beginning of this month, I decided to stay in Korea for another year of teaching. I completed my contract with the horrible, 11 hour working day, mismanaged English academy and got a job teaching writing to sixth graders at a private elementary school in northern Seoul. I now work normal hours (8 hour days, oh how I’d missed you!) and have a whopping EIGHT weeks of paid vacation.

Now that I have both more free time and more sanity, I will be able to put the effort into this blog that it requires. Regular posting will resume this week and within the next month or two expect to see some exciting changes.

And don’t worry, Farsickness 2.o will still focus on expat life in Seoul and travels around Korea and Asia, but with greater detail and expanded coverage.

Happy Travels!

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