Monday, January 19, 2009

Screen Golf and all of its glory

So Alick, Mal (see previous blog post for character development) and I try to come up with a new way to spend our Friday (Friday the 16th) evening as opposed to the usual hanging out in a bar and trying to forget about the devil children we are supposed to be "teaching". What resulted was about the best hour to hour and half in the history sport. Welcome to our night of screen golf!

Apparently, it is quite expensive to play golf on a proper course in Korea, like hundres of dollars expensive. I think it has something to do with Korea being quite small and not having a lot of flat, grassy areas but I'm not entirely sure on that. With that said, golf is still quite popular in Korea, so how do you solve this problem? Also, there is no California/Arizona type climate in Korea so there is no place you can golf during the winter months.

So some quick thinking Koreans decided to tackle these problems by making a room where one could play golf. This room isn't some mega indoor complex yet a room the size of a big living room that is in a 3 story building. Awesome!

In the front of the room was the screen which you would hit the ball into. In the back of the room they had a couch for the people waiting for their turn (we call those people Alick)and there was a mini-fridge stocked with juice/health drinks. The actual playing surface was a tee for your woods and then a small turf area for the irons/wedges and putter. There was a computer next to the small playing area which was needed to scan the ball and then it would register where your shot would go. Unfortunately, when the whole screen golf was conceptualized, the koreans didn't consider southpaws as the computer sits across from where right-handed golfers would stand, so basically right where lefties would take their shot. Other than that glitch, the whole screen golf concept exceeded my expectations and then some.

So, the three of us took out our week's worth of aggression on some computerized balls by hitting them into a projection screen. Unfortunately for Alick, Mal and I got more bang for our buck as we had played under 5 games of golf between the two of us prior to the screen golf, so we averaged about 8 strokes per hole. Although Alick did find ways of enjoying himself and he did make the most of his opportunities to play, whether it be making birdies or making holes in the ceiling. Furthermore, his birdie celebrations were priceless. With that said, I did have some good cuts and probably had some of my best 5 wholes of golf.

In summary, the whole screen golf concept is the way golf is intended to be played. No walking, no rain delays and drinking beer and eating pringles while sitting on a couch and waiting for your turn. What more could you ask for?

Ok, so I'm a little behind on my blogging but with good reason as I was in Seoul for the Lunar New Year this past weekend. I have a lot to blog about in regards to the Seoul trip and will probably do a 2 part Seoul post in the near future. Also, pics of both the screen golf and Seoul trip should be up on facebook in the near future. If you do not have facebook, send me an e-mail or leave a request plus e-mail address on the blog for said pictures. Take care all!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's about time for one of these.......

So yesterday was the 2 month mark of me being in Korea, not that I'm counting or anything, so I figured it's time that I do a blog about my thoughts on Korea. I was originally thinking of doing a "what I like/what I don't like" but I have a feeling that could be another novel like last week's post, so I will focus on the positive and hopefully that will keep the post shorter.

#1. Being able to walk everywhere/having readily available public transportation. Ok, so the first part of that has to do with my location in Ulsan, but it is great to be able to do all of my shopping, eating out, drinking/socializing within a 15 minute walk. It's also amazing being able to go to other parts of the city by bus or taxi and have it be under 6 dollars (generally speaking).

#2. Soccer, or as the locals call it, chuk-gu. It's amazing to live in a place that actually cares about soccer. I swear at any given moment there will be something soccer related, whether it be highlights, actual games, repeats of actual games, bloopers, or whatever. I swear of I've seen highlights of the 2002 world cup 20 times by now, and I continue to watch it even though I already know what happens. Fear not you non soccer loving people, they do show lots of golf, billiards, korean basketball league games (mens and womens), and volleyball.... Ok, maybe it is better to be a soccer fan. One more thing on this subject, it's great not having American ESPN, we have MBC ESPN, whatever that means. Just picture waking up and turning on sports and seeeing highlights instead of seeing T.O. breakdown in a press conference, 30 days of Brett Favre footage or baseball players "testify" in front of congress. Awesome!

#3. Gogi-Jip, or B.B.Q restaurants. By far my favorite Korean food and the whole experience is so enjoyable as well. You get a grill in front of you, grill your meat and then wrap it up with some chili sauce, small chunks of garlic, green onion, all in a mint leave. I will now move on or I will end up drooling on the keyboard.

#4 Ondol heating. Most places in Korea have what's called ondol heating which is heating that comes through the laminate floor. At first I was a little reluctant but it's perfect for someone like me that always has cold feet. Plus, you throw your blankets on the floor before you go to bed and they get all toasty. I even know some people use it to dry their clothes.

#5. K-Pop, also known as Korean Pop. This is a guilty pleasure but K-pop is so cheesy but it's so damn catchy and sugary. It's impossible to walk down the streets, especially the cell phone shops that generally play the music, and not hum the music for the rest of the day. I don't even know the lyrics for most of them but that doesn't prevent me from humming them all day.

#6. Korean Baked goods. Who would've thought, right? I've already written about papa roti, which i haven't had in a while but it is delicious none-the-less. I also put in a picture of the delicious fried pancakes on the blog, which are possibly the tastiest things on earth. Hoo-ray street food! Another big thing with my co-teachers are roll cakes, and mocha roll cakes are the best. Lastly, a new favorite are these little croqutte rolls which have savory foods inside. Some of them include spicy chicken, curry chicken, and vegetable. I know it sounds weird and I was reluctant to try but they are tasty. Think of them as the Korean meat pie/empanada.

#7. The English Translations. At my English School, there is a sign that says "Don't open the windows or you will hurt". An English School! Most recently I saw a sign in a restaurant that is on the second floor of a building, that said "When descending, take care the foot". These are the ones that stick out but some people wear stuff on their t-shirts where I'm sure they have no clue what's being said.

#8. The people. I know this is cliché but the people are really friendly and welcoming. According to Lonely Planet, Korean people are innately xenophobic or suspicious of foreigners but most people have been super nice to us. The first instance that suck out was when I was having dinner with some waeguks and a korean guy and the owner brought a bunch of cokes to our dinner table, which is a bigger deal than it would be in the states because fountain drinks don't exist outside MacDonalds or other fast food joints. There's also the owner of the Thai restaurant across the street who will offer me a coke or coffee free of charge and since I'm usually there once a week, he'll give me a small discount as well. Also, my first soccer game with the wonshot wonderers, some team brought us a plate of b.b.q meat, which was a nice gesture if nothing else because I was not going to eat some meat before our game.

Apart from the discounts, most people are excited to see foreigners and love to try and talk to you. If you even try and speak Korean, they love you even more. In some ways it's kind of like being celebrity to a lesser extent. I usually don't mind it but sometimes when I'm eating I feel like people are watching me. It probably doesn't help that I suck with chopsticks so that probably brings some more attention to myself.

Outside of the Koreans, I obviously spend a lot of time with waeguks, and I have met a lot of cool people. I've also met some obnoxious, token Americans, but I've met some cool ones too. I find myself hanging out with mostly British people, it may be from playing soccer, but that's usually how it goes. I've probably spent more time with Alick, a bloke from London, who you all met in my most recent posting if not before, which I attribute to him and I arriving at the same time and kind of being in a similar position. I've also befriended this couple from outside Kent, England, named Mal(colm) and Lu (Louise), and they're a blast to hang out with as well. They actually have been traveling all around Asia, been to China and Russia recently, so they're always good for an entertaining story. And then there is Craig, my co-teacher and fellow country-man who has been like a godsent, as he knows where to go to eat, which buses to take, etc. I'm pretty sure I'd be in a ditch right now if it weren't for Craig.

I'm sure there are some other little things out there that slipped through the cracks of this post, but I think I hit on some key points here. I'm sure I'll post some more little things as they come about. Hope you're all well.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chris and Alick's trip to Vermont....... errr Gyeongju

I am writing this as a warning as I wrap up this post. This post is quite long so make sure you have some time to read this. I am not to be held responsible for people arriving late to work, missing classes, not spending time with loved ones, etc.

Last week being New Year, our school was given off from the 31st until the Monday the 5th. My English friend Alick, who had a similar vacay schedule to mine, and I decided to get out of Ulsan and see some of Korea. Wagons north, towards Gyeongju.

So we met at 4:00 on New Years Day, which is just an indication of how hard we partied on NYE, and got a cab to the train station in Ulsan. Within 20 minutes we've boarded a train and get to Gyeongju in another 50 minutes or so.

After searching, for what seeemed like hours, for a suitable place to spend the night, we came across a hostel recommended by Lonely Planet. The first night in Gyeongju was pretty mild as we had both been out late the night before.

Before I get into the meat of our journey, please let me give a little info about Gyeongju. Gyeongju is a city of about 270,000 people or so, well according to Lonely Planet it is, but it is a pretty significant city. Back during the Silla Dynasty, which was from around 57 B.C. to 945 A.D., Gyeongju was the capital of Korea. Gyeongju itself probably has more monuments, temples and so forth than any other part of Korea. Once the Silla dynasty fell apart, Gyeonju became lesse relevant.

So day one, Friday the 2nd, we stroll around downtown Gyeongju to what I call "Tumuli Park" which is this park with all these Tumulis, or mounds. The Tumuli mounds are where they buried the kings during this period, much like the Egyptians and the Pharoahs. We were able to go into one which has since been turned into a museum with relics of the period.

We strolled around some more in the park, saw some observatory made of stone, got lots of stares from children and adult koreans alike, all in all a typical day. Next stop was the Anapji pond, which used to have some cool bridges and buildings but they were burned down so all that's left are some relics and some models of the bridges/buildings. I think it was the Japanese that burned it down somewhere in the 16th century, so I'm blaming you, Summer Masuda, for robbing me of this experience.

We then caught a bus from downtown Gyeongju to the outskirts to see the Bulguksa Temple. Bulguksa, much like the other temples, is kind of like a square with a couple of different halls that will have a golden buddha statue inside and lots of candles, incense or both. Also, part of the buddhist experience is buying a corndog on the way up the mountain to the temple.

While in the area we decided to stop on over to Seokguram Grotto which is some buddha shrine in this mountain. It's supposedly a UNESCO site, as is Bulguksa, but is underwhelming, well at least at 4,000 won (3 dollars or so) to enter. I guess carrying a heavy stone buddha statue up a mountain in the 7th century was some kind of feat or something.

After visiting Seokguram, we decided to head back into Central Gyeongju for the evening. The second evening, we stayed in what is called a yeoinsuk, which are these little dingy whole-in-the-wall places right off of the main street in Gyeongu (well yeoinsuks are all over Korea I guess). We tried asking the lady for 2 beds, one room, I actually learned bed and was able to ask that and also ask how much, so my Korean is improving, but we soon realized that it was not possible. To describe it, the room was a closet with a single bed, a stand with a t.v., 3 foot narrow path to get from door to t.v., and then a bathroom about 5 foot wide-5 food long-8 foot tall, with a toilet, sink, shower spray hose and bucket (your guess is as good as mine). If you do ever come to Korea and want to do it on the cheap, yeoinsuks are the way to go. Also, the bed had an electric heating pad on top of the mattress, brilliant.

The following day, the 3rd of January, we head out to the area close to Bulguksa, only a little bit further away from everything, and go to Golgulsa Temple. Alick and I had both heard about a thing called a Temple stay, where one stays in a Buddhist temple for the night and Golgulsa provides such programs so we decided to give it a shot.

We arrived just after lunch time on Saturday but just in time for archery, 2:00. At precisely 2:16 I realized I still suck at archery. After walking around the temple, which has an impressive stone carving of Buddha in the mountain, we had dinner then got ready for the evening chants. We did the chants, which was more or less standing, bowing, crouching down and doing it all over again. We were never explained what was going on so we had no clue the whole half hour. I imagine it would be like dropping a Korean person into a Roman Catholic Mass given in English or so.

After the evening chant we did Sunmudo, which is a martial art done by the Korean Buddhist Monks. Golgulsa is apparently the capital of Sunmudo and never hesitates to mention it. Our training was more or less split up into 40 minutes of breathing/stretching exercises, 30 minutes of martial arts moves that we could not do, and then about 20 minutes of meditation/demonstration. End of sunmudo, return to rooms and go to bed, lights out at 10.

The following morning, it's rise and shine at 4:00 and be at the morning chant at 4:30 in the morning or else it's 3000 bows. After the chants we did some more meditation and walking meditation.

Next we had a ceremonial breakfast which was by far the most complicated eating experience but very rewarding as well. The whole meal was consumed in silence and we were given 4 bowls, all sitting together, and had to take them out one by one with out making a noise. Then the monks would walk by and dole out your portions and you would rotate the bowl to let them knwo you have enough food. You also did not want a lot of food as buddhists don't waste so you have to eat everything. In the smallest bowl, you put your vegetables and kimchi. 2nd smallest was clean water, then the soup bowl and the biggest was rice. You had to take one piece of kimchi and put it in the soup to take off the red pepper and then put it in the rice bowl to save for later as you would use this piece of cabbage to clean your bowl. Then, eat everything in your bowls, bit by bit. Then they would give you some water, take the water and kimchi (holding it with chopsticks) and clean your rice bowl, move the water to soup bowl, then vegetable bowl, then drink it. Then take the clean water and do the same process, thus cleaning your bowls 2 times. The bowls should be pretty clean the 1st time so that by the second time you rinse your bowls they are clean. The idea is buddhism is all about mindful practices, so you should be mindful when eating, cleaning etc. Then when finished, the monks would pick up your clean water and it had to be clean because they give you clean water and then you give them back clean water. Whatever amount of water wasn't clean you had to drink. Confusing right? Just remember to be thankful you have brillo pads and not shreds of cabbage for cleaning!

The temple then had some trips to some local sites, which included the ruins of a great hall from the Silla Dynasty, King Munmu's underwater tomb and Girimsa Temple site. About King Munmu, he was so big on protecting the nation that he told his people that when he died he wanted to be buried in the East Sea (Sea between Korea and Japan) in the hopes that he would turn into a Dragon and protect Korea. So that's what his son did, or so they say. It's never been proven either way but there are a bunch of rocks some 200 meters off the shore which are cool to look at.

Next is Girimsa site, which to paraphrase LP (Lonely Planet from now on will be LP), is about the size of Bulguksa Temple, as far as number of buildings, but is less visited because of it's location. I actually enjoyed Girimsa a lot but I had already taken a bunch of photos so I was kind of sick being a tourist at that point.

Alick and I then got back to the temple and decided we were sick of being buddhists and decided to skip lunch at the temple and head back to Ulsan.

Some things that Alick and I learned that weekend. Number 1, being a buddhist is incredibly painful. We spent a lot of time sitting on the floor "indian style", which stopped being comfortable somewhere around age 10 or so. Also, the whole bowing, kneeling and sitting on the tops of your feet was incredibly painful after 5 minutes, but doing it for a half hour, geesh.

Number 2, it's hard to clear the mind at times. We both said that when meditating how hard it was for us to keep our mind off of our "to do list", women, football, etc. Buddhism is much easier when you live in a temple in a mountain that is pretty far from most of civilization. It's also a lot easier when you do it frequently, I guess the same can be said of the bowing, kneeling etc.

Number 3, the temple stay was kind of disappointing. I thought it was going to be really traditionally but instead I saw the head monk look at his cell phone as we were going to do the Sunmudo. Also, it was hard for me to get anything out of the chants as I had no clue what was going on. For me, the best part was the ceremonial breakfast, I think mostly because that's what I expected the experience to be. Not talking, cleaning everything with cleaned kimchi, etc.

Lastly, Gyeongju is really a pretty cool place. It doesn't have much of a night life, maybe in the university are but not much going down in Central Gyeongju, trust me, Alick and I tried and failed miserably, but there is a lot to see. I think we saw a lot but barely scratched the surface of the city. Apparently there are some hiking trails, waterfalls, some big pagodas, etc. all on the outskirts of the city. The parks are also supposed to be nice when the cherry blossoms come in during the spring. I definitely could see myself doing a one day/one night trip there sometime.

Wrapping it up, if you're still reading this post, #1 hats off to you. #2 some small housekeeping items. Happy New Year to everyone. I'm not big into New Years but I hope you all had a great one and hope this is a good one for you all. And finally, after much failure, I've decided to stop putting up pictures on the blog. I've come to this conclusion for mostly 2 reasons. First of all, I put them all on facebook which is easier to use, and it takes a lot of time to put pics up on both facebook and the blog. Secondly, whenever I try putting the pics up on the blog, it always seems to end up messing up the format and leaving me dissatisfied. I even do a check before I publish and it will look good, and then it sucks after publishing.

If you don't have a facebook account, get one (L\looking at you Marianne Herricht). This is the 21st century, you know. But if you must be stubborn, then send me an e-mail or leave a request on the blog and I will e-mail them to you but I make no guarantee of when you will get them as I am notorious for being slow to respond. If you have a facebook account and you're not one of my friends, what are you waiting for, add me today for the low, low price of 19.99. No seriously, just look up my name and add me, there is no fee.

That is all. I hope you enjoyed this segment of Chris in Korea: The T.V. Miniseries.