Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Home Again

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Winding trails will end,
Home’s call pierces through the way
Things begin again

After what seems like 100 years of travelling, we’re finally home! It’s time to re-enter productive society and have a purpose again. Travelling is amazing, but touring is somehow different… we felt lost at some points, but when we gained purpose by renting the motorbike or hiking around Jeju, we were most happy. We’re both excited about what lies ahead! This fall will see Evan working with Intel on a research project related to personal data, and I’ll be continuing my PhD. We’ll definitely keep in touch with all of you. :)

Anyway, today we woke up and packed, then fretted for a while about how to get to the airport. Yesterday the going rate for a ride was something like 1000 pesos, due to the wind and rain. One of the hostel staff offered to drive us! So we eagerly accepted, then struck out with one of our friends from the hostel to get some snacks and lunch.

By 1pm we were already at the airport, prepared for a flight not leaving until 10:30pm. The hostel fellow had not only driven us to the airport, but he refused to take any money for it. So kind! We made our slow way through the business class line (slow because of the backlogs from yesterday), then paid our ridiculous terminal tax (to fly out of Manila airport you have to pay the government 550 PHP/person: that’s about $12.50) and took seats in the business class lounge. We contented ourselves there for many hours, playing games and writing blog posts while munching on free food and sipping free drinks.

Eventually it came to pass that our flight was delayed (surprise), so we spent even more time in the lounge than anticipated… but eventually we got on the plane and were ushered up the stairs to The Upper Deck.

The upper deck is pretty fancy, y’all. The seats recline into near-lying down. The headphones don’t suck. The food is infinitely better than the gruel served to “the Plebes” (haha, we’re usually plebians, too). At any time in the flight, you can call for drinks or rice porridge. I think our dinner included bacon-wrapped salmon, as an appetizer. Free champagne.

We eagerly devoured dinner, then slept for a good, long time (5-6 hours?) in the beautiful seats. We woke up and ordered rice porridge because we could, then watched a couple movies (a Filipino one about a ghost haunting twin sisters, and a sci fi flick where time is, literally, money). A few hours later we ate the beautiful breakfast on offer, then were disgorged into SFO.

Because of our business class seats, we were first off the plane and thereby first in line for customs. We sailed through, got our priority-tagged baggage (business class baggage comes off first!), and found our way to the BART. At the other end, we flew up the hill to our house and rifled through our impossible stacks of mail. It’s now 2:30am, and I think it’s time to try to sleep.

Farewell, vacation! Hello, home!

Maring’d in Manila

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Typhoon Maring continues to ravage Metro Manila with impressive ferocity. We awaken to some distressing news: all roads to the airport have been declared impassable, so all flights have been cancelled for the day; the city is in a state of emergency, with all government offices and many businesses closed; there are three more typhoons on their way, with no indication if they’ll hit Manila. Our Melting Pot proves to be a welcome refuge from this chaos. The staff are super-friendly, and have even taken to cooking evening meals for stranded guests. Fortunately, affluent Makati City is mostly flood-free, owing perhaps to its newer (and therefore superior) drainage systems. Such is the power that money brings…

After spending most of yesterday holed up in the hostel, though, we’re yearning for something a bit more active. We ignore the advice of the staff, who all tell us that the historic downtown quarter is completely swamped, and head off for the elevated public transit lines. The train has shut down for the day, but the LRT and MRT are still in action. Once at the LRT/MRT junction, we catch a glimpse of what flooding truly means. You can’t actually exit the station without plunging into waist-deep floodwaters, thick brown with a slurry of human waste and garbage. Nevertheless, some adventurous (or perhaps just displaced) souls are wading through the mess. There are passengers sitting atop cyclo-taxis as the drivers push them through the water. Red Cross vehicles plow through the floodwaters, sending out raft-equipped rescue teams to help those in need.

It gets even worse as we near the old town. In some places the flooding is neck-deep. At Central Station, it’s the same story: exits are flooded, and few dare slog through the water below. The closest we get to seeing the old town is a panoramic view off the platform of the surrounding moat, which has since been converted into parkland. I’m not sure how to describe it – as a Torontonian, I’ve never had to worry about truly disastrous flooding. Valkyrie says that the place she lived near Houston saw periodic flooding, but nothing like this. When we get back to the hostel, we share a chuckle with the staff over our foolhardiness: what, did we think flooding meant a bunch of small puddles we could hop over? Apparently this is nowhere near the devastation caused in 2009, when floodwaters reached the third floor in some areas.

Well, I suppose we’re not fated to see anything in the Philippines this time around. Oh well; we’ll just have to come back!

Rained In

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Incessant drumming
Loud in my core. Feel the rain:
A great, wet prison

This morning found us in our stifling, windowless room at the Crosswinds Hotel, rain hammering at the roof. We poutingly packed our things and headed down for the included breakfast, which did not cheer us up much. What kind of breakfast is a hot dog, a boiled egg, and a scoop of rice?

On principle, we refused to take another taxi to get to our hostel, so we hoofed it wetly to 7-11 to get an umbrella for our walk. $7 later, we had an umbrella and some bananas to make up for the nutritional lackings of our first breakfast. We plunged into the storm.

As sheets of rain swept across the road, taxis and buses and cars darted blindly onto side streets. Vendors with their shop carts called to us to buy whatever it was they were selling. We were damp and not amused, attempting to ignore the pedicab drivers offering us a ride rather than snap at them. Eventually, after getting up to our knees in garbage-filled water, we found the metro system, where we went through security.

Apparently there were bombings in the Philippines not too long ago, and security is now a Big Deal. Every transit station has it. Every mall has it. Restaurants, apartment buildings, hostels, grocery stores… they all employ guards to wand their customers, searching for bombs or who knows what. All I know is that it’s a bit unnerving to see an 18-year-old boy holding an assault rifle smiling at you from inside the supermarket.

On board the metro, we realized that it wasn’t a subway, but actually an elevated track. Lucky for us we didn’t have to slog through the water on the roads. The metro got us pretty close to the hostel, and it was a short walk to get there (once we figured out where “there” was: Evan’s phone, the only one with cached map tiles, had died, and we spent 45 minutes combing malls for open WiFi networks to get directions). Although it was only 10am, and checkin is 1pm, the hostel staff let us into our room and we settled the bill with them. Showered, we felt like people again.

Lunch meant popping out to a local fast food place. The nice thing about fast food in this region of the world is that it’s just a passable-to-okay version of regular food, as opposed to plastic or whatever it is that our fast food is made of. We had some tasty fish stuff along with Filipino biscuits and gravy (really salty, the biscuits had a different texture, more like cake) and ginataang bilo-bilo, which is a tapioca and fruit soup.

For the remainder of the day, we basically puttered around our computers. Rain continued to drench everything in sight, and even the hostel staff were stir-crazy. They broke down and rented a videoke (karaoke + videos) machine for us to all use for 24 hours, so we spent a goodly amount of time belting out songs half-remembered on that.

Continuing their burst of awesome, the hostel staff also cooked dinner for all the guests. Apparently there are some foods which are traditional to eat for rainy days, and we had one of these. It’s also eaten for birthdays. It’s basically noodles and chicken and lettuce, and it’s delicious. We also had spring rolls with Filipino dipping sauce. This sauce, made of just vinegar, garlic, and salt, is super light and fresh compared to sweet and sour sauce.

All in all, we basically did nothing today other than entertain ourselves where it’s dry. We met, and sang with, some interesting folks at the hostel. Hopefully tomorrow we can go sightseeing?

216 Prostrations

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108 each, to be exact, which we performed last night before our evening meditation. We feel every last one as we wake up at 0430 (well before sunrise!) to catch the morning bell striking and chanting ceremonies. In Buddhist tradition, the morning is greeted with 28 strikes of the Brahma bell, one for each of the heavens. Geumsunsa is somewhat short on resident monks, so only the bell is played, but there is also the gong, the dragon-fish, and the giant drum. Morning chanting comes with a side dish of meditation, during which some of the less alert temple-stayers nod off. Can’t blame them, really; some of them came in looking even more exhausted than we did, and I imagine 0430 doesn’t really exist in conscious time for most people.

After that, we head down to the dining hall for a ceremonial meal, which turns out to be accordingly heavy on ceremony. In order:

  • You are given four bowls, a pair of cloths, chopsticks, and a spoon.
  • You lay out one of the cloths, then silently place the four bowls in their designated corners.
  • You take a portion of clean water, then swirl it around the four bowls in order to clean them. The water is left in the third largest bowl, to be used later in final cleaning.
  • You take a small portion of rice into the largest bowl, a couple of ladles of soup into the next largest, and a small bit of each side dish into the smallest. The different parts of the meal are never mixed between the bowls.
  • Finally, you take a piece of pickled radish and put it in the largest bowl with the rice. You do not eat this radish until the end.
  • With everything served, the group chants in unison to start the meal.
  • Before eating the rice, you ladle one or two spoonfuls of clean water over it.
  • You lift the bowls to your mouth, covering it from view as you eat small portions using the chopsticks (or spoon) with your right hand.
  • Once finished, you rinse the bowls with the water, using the radish to clean off any leftover bits.
  • You eat the radish and deposit the water into a communal offering bowl for the Hungry Ghost. The Hungry Ghost is said to have a very narrow throat, so the water offered to it must be as clean as possible! The monks inspect the water to see if the Hungry Ghost will eat well or choke.

This is one of the more unique meals I’ve had, but the portions are, well, monastic. I’m left feeling a bit peckish for the communal work hour, in which I clean our room and help sweep the courtyard. Where will I get the energy for our quick hike up into the hills around Geumsunsa? No worries – the monks are prepared with miniature Snickers bars, one per person. This provides the quick burst of tasty sugar needed to conquer our 15-minute uphill climb to this beautiful rocky lookout over the valley below. It’s a bit surreal, feeling like you’re out in the middle of nowhere while still within eyeshot of Seoul Tower atop Namsan. We share our hiking path this morning with an eager-looking crew of rock climbers, which underscores this point: we’re really not that far from civilization, so to speak.

Then it’s back down to the temple for a conversation with one of the monks, who happily fields questions with the help of an English interpreter. There’s the usual set of inquiries: how long have you been a monk? How long does the process take? Do you see your family? Do you really get up at 0300 every morning? One of the women asks a more prickly question: why are there temples and other places of prayer when the Buddha is not a god? (To further complicate this question: some other faiths, such as Hinduism and the Baha’i faith, hold that he is a manifestation of divinity, although I’m nowhere near familiar enough with either to understand the full implications there.)

Finally, we sate our growing hunger with a massive lunch, our last meal from the dining hall! We’ve got a bit of time yet before we have to be at the airport, so we meet Taejin downtown by one of the ancient palaces, where there’s a changing of the guard ceremony taking place at 1530. After that, we have just shy of an hour to check out City Hall, which has some super-cool attractions on the lower floor. There’s a small archaeological museum featuring some of the ruins discovered under the building, a common space where vendors have set up a makeshift market, and a public clown performance for kids. The clown spots Valkyrie and promptly calls her up on stage to help him demonstrate a balloon trick, much to the amusement of Taejin and myself.

The last part of the day is a blur of travelling: from Seoul to Incheon by bus, then the usual slog through security, a short wait for the plane, a three-hour hop across a single timezone to Manila…

…but wait! Things can’t possibly be that smooth, not with a major typhoon afoot. Instead of gliding serenely into Manila, we’re awoken by some impressive turbulence as the plane skirts the storm’s edge. Then the captain comes on with an announcement: we can’t land yet, owing to limited runway availability and dodgy weather. We fear the plane might be diverted to another airport, but after three loops around Manila it finally descends to land about an hour late. On the ground, everything is chaos. The taxis won’t take us to our hostel, saying that the roads are flooded in that direction. We ask around, but to no avail! Finally, we give up on reaching the hostel tonight, and instead use the last of our cellphone battery to look up a nearby hotel on the airport’s wifi. The taxi ride is overpriced, as is the hotel given the sorry state of the rooms (and the horrific rattling of the air conditioners therein). Oh well; at least it’s a place to sleep, which is better than some have tonight.

Maybe we’ll be able to reach the hostel tomorrow. Who knows? It all depends on the weather…

Zen and the Art of North Korea

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Deep in the mountains
A window into the mind
Observe, and let go

Bleary-eyed at 6:45, we stuffed Solhee’s pre-bought rice burgers (it’s like two patties made out of rice with a bit of meat in the middle) into our mouths and shuffled over to the USO. With 5 Americans, we piled into a bus and made the ride to the DMZ area.

The DMZ (De Militarized Zone) is a 4km strip, 2km on each side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), between North and South Korea. The two countries are still technically at war, as no armistice was signed following the Korean War in the 1950s. Because the borders were shifting constantly during the war, and families weren’t able to evacuate in all cases, this means that many families were split by the division of Korea, and thus that lots of people are crying for reunification. There are some diplomatic relations (although apparently they were better under the last South Korean president than the current one) between the two countries, and in fact there is an industrial complex in North Korea, just a bit over the border, which employs a few hundred South Koreans and a few thousand North Koreans. This is supposed to help with the push to reunification, playing off the strengths of both Koreas. The north is now largely agricultural and manufacturing-focused, while the south is, of course, high tech. The North hasn’t totally bowed to the regulations put in place by the UN, however: there is evidence of tunnels they built under the DMZ that were pointed in the direction of Seoul. They, of course, deny that they built them, and they smeared coal on the walls to make them appear to be an abandoned coal mine (impossible for the local geology). Anyway, things are certainly interesting.

To make a long story short, the DMZ isn’t open to visitors except with very special tour groups and passport control. The tour that we took didn’t actually go into the DMZ, just around it. We made a stop at a railway station that was used, until a couple years ago, by employees of the above-mentioned industrial complex to commute to North Korea. We also visited one of the tunnels discovered by the South Koreans, and a peace park built at the edge of the DMZ. From an observatory stop, on top of a mountain, we could see into North Korea… in the DMZ there are exactly two villages, one on the South side and one on the North side. They are engaged in a pissing match: each wants its flag tower to be taller. North Korea is currently winning. Also, no one lives in the North Korean village… presumably because it would be pretty easy for them to defect from there.

After a fascinating day in the DMZ area with Solhee, we bid her a fond farewell and went in the direction of our temple stay. The temple, Geunsumsa, is nestled in the mountains north of Seoul, but it still has a view of N Seoul Tower and a fair piece of city. There are just a handful of monks living there, but they seemed excited to have a crowd of learners. We spent time touring the complex, then doing evening chants, ringing the bell (33 times at night, to open the 28 levels of heaven and the 5 non-heaven realms of beings), and eating dinner. To close off the night we did 108 prostrations (bows of a special kind) and some meditation. Staring up at the moon, exhausted and sore from 108 bows, and meditating was an amazing exercise. After that, we are to keep silence until morning… but maybe a blogpost doesn’t count. :)

Weaving a Path Through Seoul

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Slow start to the day, what with our late-night revelry at Super Sonic yesterday. Between Lindsay Sterling and Choyongpil, our jumping/dancing muscles are well worn out, which we feel immediately when we head down the block for some breakfast groceries. Solhee’s got some frozen blueberries tucked away in the deepest recesses of her freezer, so we start off the day in an unexpectedly California-esque way with blueberry-banana smoothies! Yum.

Then it’s off to Solhee’s university, where we finally succeed in visiting a museum; this one is on embroidery, both traditional and modern. Most of the selection is Korean, but there’s some Chinese and Japanese stuff on display for comparison. (For instance: Japanese embroidered garments usually incorporate painting to a greater degree than their Korean counterparts, while the visual design is more minimalistic.)

Solhee’s got some work to do – an article on Korean Independence Day and the ways in which it differs from the American Fourth of July celebrations. She half-jokingly says she’s writing the article to introduce the concept of celebratory fireworks to Korea, where they are sorely lacking. She points us to a temple an hour out of the city along one of the metro lines, but we’re pretty exhausted from the music festival. We decide instead to head into the downtown area and try our luck with a Korean film, The Flu. Although the film is entirely in Korean with no subtitles, it’s a fascinating cultural experience. It’s a pretty standard action flick, so even without any idea what they’re saying we can sort of follow along with the plot. Some observations of note:

  • The foreign presence in the film is minimal: one Malay boy, who dies towards the end, and two pushy white assholes who are supposed to be from the CDC.
  • There are multiple scenes of (mostly) old men sitting around in various locations looking very serious as they discuss their response to the outbreak.
  • Along with that, there are several points at which various characters “pull rank” by invoking their status or relative age to silence less powerful people. (Usually the people they silence are right, but whatever; who cares about being right when you’re powerful and old?)

So yeah: despite the language barrier, we manage to get something out of it. The rest of the day is pretty lazy; we grab some fried kabocha squash pieces on the way back, then cook up a dinner of noodles and stir-fried vegetables with fish cake and tofu. (Of course, there’s kimchi with the meal. What’s a Korean meal without kimchi?)

Tomorrow, we’re off to the DMZ, then on to Geumsunsa for our temple stay!

Independence Day

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With a booming roar
Enjoy another year free
And some well-dressed men

I woke up, too early as usual, and waited for Evan to drag himself out of bed before we could eat the (unsatisfying) hostel breakfast of bread and peanut butter. Every day we’re aching more for home…

After killing a bit of time, mired in our respective books, we headed over to meet with our friend Solhee. She is a friend of a friend, who Couchsurfed with us in San Francisco a year or two ago. She also wrote an article about Evan’s time at Facebook, and the general culture of the Silicon Valley. She’s a student in telecommunications at a university in Seoul, and she offered to let us sleep on her floor for a couple nights.

But today we still had a lot to do! We dropped our bags off at her place and struck out towards Gangnam and the Olympic stadium, where Super Sonic 2013 was on.

Taejin met us at the ticket gates, and we all got our various wristbands. Solhee and Taejin argued in frantic Korean about what our schedule should be, their tastes in music being slightly different. Evan and I recognized just one of the names on the list for today: Lindsay Sterling, a dubstep violinist from the states.

We wandered in circles and danced madly and ate and chatted and enjoyed ourselves for the next 11 hours. We saw Korean indie rock bands (they performed their whole show sitting down onstage), a group dressed as moon wrestlers with backup dancers scrambling madly about the stage (watch some of their videos on (youtube)[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcxFL3NeBrs&feature=youtu.be]), a performer who was famous 25 years ago and now making a comeback, and lots more. Sometimes we sat on the lawn outdoors, sometimes we escaped into the mercifully air conditioned pavilions. We were filmed for a big-screen video. We finally had the classic Korean dish: chicken and beer. Solhee told us, though, that it was not “beer chicken” but just some other kind that happened to be served with beer. During one particularly memorable dance, we joined hands with a bunch of elated Koreans and whirled in a circle, which ended abruptly when one of them let go and flew into a barricade. We all lept to help, and she was fine, but within 15 seconds there was additional security detail on the fence there.

At sunset, we took a stroll around the Olympic Park itself, where we saw the skyline of Gangnam and the stadium, and where we got to enjoy not smelling other dancers’ BO.

Eventually we finished the night by taking a $30 cab (this price was totally reasonable, since we were riding in the cab for something like 30 minutes and speeding along at a good rate during that) back to Solhee’s. She’s excited to write a story about Indpendence Day: today was Korea’s independence day (they were ruled by Japan for a while), but it’s traditionally celebrated just by giving folks the day off and hearing a speech from the president. She is enamored with the concept of fireworks and barbecues and speedboating, so she hopes that her article will spur some kind of exciting new tradition for Korea’s Independence Days to come.

So Yo Think You Can Hike

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Another day, another failed museum visit. This time, the museum was a bit further afield: the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art (as in art about chickens, not art made of chicken, although maybe there also would have been some of the latter) is a two-hour subway/train slog from downtown Seoul, about 2km north of the final stop on Metro line 1. Unfortunately for us, the museum was closed; I guess they were doing some construction in the area, or maybe it just didn’t get enough visitors with the remote location. Oh well.

Consolation prize: a hike up into the Soyosan mountains. There’s a cluster of peaks connected by ridges, each about 500m in elevation, accessible via a network of hiking trails. Some of the trails we took had us scrambling along dried-up streams, rocky ledges, and overgrown forest paths. Definitely different from the mostly immaculate trails available to American hikers! The hike to the top takes roughly an hour from Soyosan station, but you can find full-day and even multi-day loops in the area.

On the way up, you first pass through a fairly level stretch that follows one of the streambeds. The day we visited was the day before Korean Independence Day, so this part was swarming with families and retirees – it being a popular pastime to sit down by the stream, maybe take an extended picnic, dip your feet in the water, and…break out the boombox for some background music. We could hear the music, mostly blends of K-pop with some more traditional ballad-y stuff, reverberating all the way up to the peaks…

Then you enter a temple complex, complete with cave shrines and ceremonial entrance gates. Every so often, the near-silence is punctuated by hikers ringing a small bell on one of the gates as they pass. We also spot a modern logistical convenience of the temple: a sort of lawnmower engine rigged to a track for moving heavy objects (stone blocks, for instance, or other construction materials) up to the main temple grounds. Summer is apparently construction season here as well, even in these mountains.

Once at the top, we’re rewarded with some magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. It’s a bit hazy, and many of the views are partially obstructed by trees (after all, these peaks aren’t high enough to clear the treeline!), but awesome nonetheless. Seems like an adequate consolation prize for missing out on chicken art! Also, it feels good to get in a solid hike without the packs on – much easier, especially in this muggy heat.

Then it’s back to Seoul for one last night at the hostel. We meet up with someone we met in the hostel and head to Bibap, a food-themed nonverbal musical based around beatboxing and breakdancing. It’s definitely a silly touristy thing, but one of the more awesome silly touristy things out there, so we don’t mind! Afterwards, we feel obligated to pick up some bibimbap, or “mixed rice” – the name of the musical is a play off this famous Korean dish. Yum!

We’re super-excited for tomorrow, since we’re meeting up with Taejin and Solhee at the SuperSonic music festival! Yay!

Gangnam Redux

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A thousand spun threads
Twisting into each other
Weaving all of life

We awoke in our separate pods, hidden from the world by thick curtains and hiding from the world under cozy blankets. I got up a couple hours before Evan and Googled around, looking for things to occupy us during our few days before we meet up with our Couchsurfing host. I also learned that my sister and I are more similar than we seem; readers with decent memories may recall that I broke my left middle finger in a rope swing accident while canoeing a couple days before we started this trip. Well, it turns out that she broke her right middle finger in a rope swing accident while canoeing a couple days ago. Heh.

When Evan finally got up, we decided that today we ought to go to the Kimchee Museum. We headed that-a-way, but upon arrival were informed that it’s closed for construction. Heartbreak! Someone must go and tell us how it is; as far as I know you get to make kimchee during your visit!

Making our slow way towards Gangnam, we stumbled upon, what else, a UNESCO world heritage site. This one was the burial mounds of kings and queens from bygone dyansties, and there was a good deal of shady and beautiful park to stroll around. Some pathways were closed to tourists, as they had only been built for the spirits to walk. These mounds were a totally different animal from the ones we’d seen in the countryside of Jeju…

We rooted around in Gangnam for some hours thereafter, searching for a gift to give my dad (who loves Psy). Puzzlingly, the only item we found in our hours of searching that bore Psy was a pair of socks for children? We didn’t buy them, but we did actually learn a fair amount about Gangnam in the process. The song, Gangnam Style, is actually about how folks in that area all have plastic surgery and spend too much money, etc., etc., and we saw all the evidences of this: facelift clinics, “haberdasheries”, and excessive numbers of custom-tailored suit shops. A learning experience, if not a fruitful shopping one.

We paused for lunch, which included a dish we hadn’t had before and aren’t sure the name of. It was like a gravy soup, but not exactly creamy, that had sesame flavour and a lot of tofu in it. If anyone knows what this is, or can get us the recipe, please speak up! We had no luck getting a translation out of Google, but maybe my terrible description is enough.

We spent some time in the saddest board games cafe, torn between playing games we knew, games without rules, games with only German rules, games with only Korean rules, and games without all their pieces. We drank sad mango juice from a box. Then we paid too much money and left.

Back at our hostel, we caught up on blog posts and also made friends with some of the other guests. We all went out for dinner together: delicious Korean barbecue. There’s nothing like grilling your own meat at your own table.

After sharing a bottle of soju, it’s time for bed. Good night, friends!

I’m a Seoul Man

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Mokpo to Seoul today, this time via the Korail express train! It’s a journey of roughly four hours through lush countryside tessellated with rice paddies. We initially grab tickets for the evening train, but move them up a couple of hours to catch views of this countryside from the train windows before night falls. That’s not the only reason for the schedule change: the sweltering heat has followed us from Jeju, leaving us more than a bit exhausted after exploring Mokpo for the day.

What’s there to see in Mokpo? The hill Yudalsan has a great view over the city, along with a few temples and rest pavilions on the path up. There’s some boardwalks down by the harborfront, a “Marine Products Zone” which we assume to be some kind of market, an old Japanese consulate building, and a modern sculpture garden around the back of Yudalsan. Unfortunately, we’re stuck walking all this with our packs on, which only adds to the burdensome heat. By the time we finish with the sculpture garden, we’re feeling a bit woozy, so we decide to refuel our bodies and spirits with an overly sugary patbingsu at a cafe downtown.

Lunch is a kimchi-shrimp pancake with grass jelly salad (I think the “grass” here is a type of seagrass) in a restaurant overlooking the downtown area. We’re unable to finish all of it, so we sheepishly ask the owner to pack up the rest. This is an uncommon request – they don’t really have takeout boxes at this restaurant, so she jerry-rigs something with a styrofoam palette, plastic food wrap, and a couple of plastic bags. We’re happy she does, because it makes a delicious if somewhat messy snack later on when we board the train!

On the other end in Seoul, we have a mini-adventure looking for a hostel. I’ve starred a few hostel locations on Google Maps, which is my first mistake: we’re not sure where U & I Hostel is supposed to be, but it’s definitely not in the residential back alleys that Google Maps places it in. That’s alright; at least we got a nice walk through a nearby park and university campus on the way there. We hop yet another taxi (we’ve been doing a lot of that over the last few days as we finally get used to the idea that taxis are actually cost-effective here) to Hongik University, managing this only after a friendly Korean man offers to help communicate our destination to the driver. This is a lesson for us: if you look foreign, busses and taxis may not always stop to pick you up!

Nevertheless, we make it to Hongik area and decide against our better instincts to give Google Maps a second chance. This time it works out, and we find a hip guesthouse/hostel called Kpopstay a short distance from the Metro station. Once there, we finally realize how hungry we are: we never had a proper dinner, and the remains of lunch were consumed a few hours ago. One of the other guests, James, offers to show us around the area – he spent a few weeks as guest staff here, so he knows the surrounding neighborhoods pretty well. We end up grabbing a cheap bowl of noodles at a local hole-in-the-wall 24h joint. Makes for a good midnight snack!

Okay, so we’re in Seoul a few days earlier than anticipated, and now we need something to do with all that time. Our friends are busy until Thursday, so what to do? I’m sure we’ll figure that one out, but we’re starting to feel the winding-down-ness of the trip – a gradual realization that it will end, that we’re alright with that, that in fact we might even be excited to get back and a little sad that we can’t do it yet. This we take as a good sign – a proper vacation should leave you yearning for something productive to do when you get back!