First 3 Weeks in KOREA!

Saying good bye at the airport in SA

Phew! What a hectic three weeks it has been! I had a few get-togethers to say good-bye in South Africa and from there everything went crazy! I arrived at Incheon International Airport in South Korea on the 16th of February 2012; a day I thought will never arrive. Another EPIK (English Program in Korea) teacher was on the same flight as me and both of us booked at hostels in Seoul, the country’s capital city, to spend a few days there before heading down to Daejeon for our 9-day orientation.

From the airport, we took the Airport Railway Express to Hongdae area in Seoul. It was amazing to experience such efficient service in public transport. No confusion, we just followed the sign, bought a ticket at the ticket machine and jumped on the train. What a pleasure, and even the seats were heated – on a minus 8 degree Celsius evening, this was so welcome!

We got off at the Hongik University stop and this was where we got confused. We couldn’t find the exit! After taking the elevator down and up again we finally saw the exit number 2 sign that we were searching for.  We walked to the exit to find that there is no elevator at exit 2. Only stairs. About 100 stairs. With 40 kilograms of luggage each, this was a nightmare coming true. Luckily, we were in Korea and very soon after starting the journey up the stairs, a Korean offered to help.

We finally got out of the subway station and into the freezing streets of Seoul. Now where? We had directions but still found it difficult to find the place. Again I say, luckily this is Korea – a very friendly woman offered to help us get to our hostels. Lauren went her way and the woman helped me to my hostel… after a few phone calls from her phone, we finally got there, what a relief!

First night in Seoul with a bunch of foreigners from all over the globe

After arriving at Big Tree House, the owner’s sister invited me to dinner with the owner and some of the guests at a Korean restaurant. It was quite festive in there by the time we arrived – lots of people singing and cheering their friends on to take the shots of soju and just having a good time. I had my first Korean barbeque and soju experience. Soju is the local fire water, almost like vodka and the mere mention of the name tends to elicit looks of dismay from foreigners. With anything from 20 to 50% alcohol it’s no wonder, and according to some of the EPIK teachers who went to the same orientation, it leaves a killer hangover.

First castle visit in Seoul

Frozen tree exhibit at the Cheonggye stream

By this time, I was awake for about 35 hours. I went straight to bed after getting home and only woke up at about 1pm the next day. This was my first opportunity to really explore the big Korean world city. It was amazing. I got to downtown Seoul just in time to see the changing of guards at the Deoksugung Palace, what an awesome sight! After exploring the palace, I went to the Cheonggye Stream – I think the most photographed place in Seoul. It was great seeing the things I only previously saw on pictures. By this time it was getting dark – time for taking the most amazing pictures! I just love Seoul at night!

Cheonggye Stream in Seoul

Then I got lost in Seoul. I was trying to find my way back to the hostel in a city with only a few English speaking people. After about two hours I finally took a taxi and was dropped off in the wrong street after being yelled at by the angry Taxi driver I couldn’t understand. Someone directed me to the hostel and I finally got some sleep.

The next day I went to Myeong-dong shopping district in Seoul, a shopper’s paradise. I strolled around ‘til late and was bombarded by neon lights around every corner – this was what I wanted to see. It was still crowded with people doing shopping and partying when I left at about12:30am. Truly a city that never sleeps. On my way to the City Hall subway, drunk people were seen everywhere. No more Soju for them!

Seoul at night

After my 4 days in Seoul, I went back to Incheon Airport to get the shuttle bus to EPIK orientation in Daejeon. At the airport I met the guy from TeachKorea, the agency that helped me get here – I would highly recommend them if you want to come to South Korea (www.teachkorea.co.za). I’ve also met a few other South Africans there and mostly sticked with them at orientation.

Our orientation was held at the Korea Tourism Human Resource Centre, a nice place. We had to share a dorm room with another person and I shared with another South African also in Gangwon province now.

Information overload. That’s actually what happened at orientation but we learned a lot and got to do a lot of networking before leaving for our new homes – we all met at least 40 new friends to cheer us up when culture shock and home sickness set in.

On the last day we had to do a mock lesson plan. Ours went well. The highlight of the day though, was finding out where we’re placed! Our whole class was placed in Gangwon province but we did not know the position or grades we’re going to teach and with Gangwon being quite rural, we were a bit more stressed about location than the teachers going to a metro city.

I am placed in Samcheok – population of almost 80 000. It is a small coastal city on the east sea on the more southern part of Gangwon. According to Lonely Planet, there are some pretty beaches tucked away in quiet coves close by but I have only been to Samcheok Main beach. It IS beautiful and the way there (about a 30min walk) is amazing with two or three random restaurants scattered in the forest.

After my first walk around town, I realised how small this city really is. I have to say that I felt a bit isolated at first as no trains run from here to the major cities but now, after my first walk to the beach and after I saw the breath-taking views of the city on my way back from the beach, all fears are gone! I love this city. The city’s slogan is “Wonderfull Samcheok”  (note the spelling of Wonderful – it really is spelled wrong on their logo! I guess that’s why they need so many English teachers).

I haven’t really travelled outside of Samcheok in Gangwon yet and I hope to be surprised. I think this area will be amazing in summer. I will have to find out about hiking trails around Samcheok as well which will be fantastic, I’m sure, as there are some beautiful mountains and breath-taking ocean views around.

While we are still in spring, I’m hoping for some last minute snow. Coming from South Africa, snow is something major and we received an awesome welcome into Samcheok, snow everywhere! They had 1-2 meter of snow in March last year and I’m hoping for the same this year!

View from my apartment in Samcheok

As for my apartment, it’s small but big enough to live in and it’s only about one year old and very modern – that makes up for the size. Oh and I just love the Korean Ondol under-floor heating system. It heats up water with oil and pumps water through pipes underneath the floor. My apartment is about 24’C right through the day.

School's playground on day of arrival

My school is also nice. It is the biggest elementary school in Samcheok and a friend (who is also my neighbour) works there as well. We have 22 40-minute classes every week and stay at the school from 9 to 5. The school is a 5 minute walk from our apartment building. Great! We have a really nice, big and new English Zone that we share, I will post pics soon.

So ja! Fluit-fluit my storie is uit, for now! I will post more about my adventures in Samcheok soon.

Video of my apartment: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10150655249205839

Fishing like an Eskimo in Gangwon!

Fishing like an Eskimo at one of the seven wonders of winter

A group of visitors in the fishing area designated for foreigners show their catch on Saturday during the ninth annual Hwacheon Sancheono Ice Festival in Gangwon. They plan to grill the fresh sancheoneo at the barbecue station right next to the river with a dash of salt and butter to celebrate their day’s labor. By Park Sang-moon

Hundreds crouched over holes in the frozen Hwacheon River in Gangwon, luring the sinuous, silvery trout hidden under 30 centimeters of ice.

Some amateur anglers – plastic fishing rods in hand while seated on little foldable stools – were ready to battle all day with the sancheoneo, a species of trout that dwells in cold, unpolluted water, touted as the “Queen of the Valley.” Others gave up and hopped on wooden sleds, sliding down nearby icy hills and enjoying the many other winter attractions.

For the month of January, the sparsely populated county of Hwacheon, Gangwon, is bustling with people flocking to this remote area for the Sancheono Ice Festival, Korea’s foremost winter festival. Some 10 percent of the visitors are from abroad, traveling to the peninsula for this 23-day event, which kicked off on Jan. 7.

The festival attracts over one million visitors each year to enjoy ice fishing and many other winter activities. It has been in the international spotlight since CNN’s Web site listed the festival as one of the “seven wonders of winter,” joining the Northern Lights in Canada and Yellowstone National Park’s boiling geysers in the United States.

As of Monday morning, there have been a total of 884,630 people who have attended the festival, of which 8,759 were tourists from abroad, according to the festival organizers.

Just nine days into the festival, this tally already beats the 2010 record of 6,862 foreign visitors out of a total of 1.33 million. Over 4,000 visitors from overseas attended the festival last weekend alone – and many more are expected for the Lunar New Year holiday this weekend.

Hwacheon’s population is 24,000 while the number of soldiers stationed in the county is 36,000. With the support of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Gangwon and regional military units came up with the winter festival to revitalize the lackluster local economy in 2003. And so far, the plan has been a success.

When the ice festival was canceled last year due to a widespread outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, the local economy incurred a 50 billion won ($44 million) loss.

Fishing like an Eskimo

One visitor, 45-year-old Xavier Liaudet, pointed to a group of young anglers nearby who popped fish after fish out of their hole and stated joking in Korean, “They’re all thieves. I haven’t caught any because they keep taking my sancheoneo!”

The Chinese characters of the name of the fish literally translate to san (mountain), cheon (river) eo (fish). For the festival, millions of sancheoneo are farmed in nearby rivers and then deposited several times a day into the frozen river for the tens of thousands of anglers that fish and devour them each day.

An amateur angler from the United States, currently teaching English in Korea and visiting the Sancheoneo Ice Festival with a group of friends, snags a fish from an ice hole in the frozen Hwacheon River.

Liaudet, a French professor at ChungAng University, brought his entire family, including his parents who are visiting from France for the month, to the ice festival for the weekend.

But the family, including his mother who was supported by a cane, was too busy to talk as they wagged their gyeonjidae, a short fishing rod with a metal hook attached to the end of the line, up and down over a hole in the ice.

Another group of 30 successful fishermen crowded the barbecue stand next to the river where they grilled their catch immediately to savor the steaming, flaky morsels. Others walked down to the next station to slice the fish up into fresh sashimi, dipped in spicy red pepper sauce.

When grilled, sancheoneo is almost odorless. The general consensus at the barbecue stand was, “It’s tasty – it doesn’t smell fishy at all.”

“Just for the foreign visitors, we add some salt mixed with our secret ingredient – curry powder – and then slather the fish with butter before wrapping it in aluminum foil and grilling it,” a fishmonger at the barbecue stand said.

Alana Brooks, 24, an English teacher at a hagwon in Chuncheon, Gangwon, who is originally from New York, adroitly wove in and out of the crowd, back at the festival for her second weekend, this time with a new set of friends. “I wanted to come to the festival last year, but it was closed down. So far, I’ve tried ice fishing and sledding, and now I want to see the snow sculptures,” she said. “There were a lot of people last week, but there seems to be even more this week.”

Around 90 ambassadors, deputies and their families from some 40 embassies in Seoul were not about to miss out on the winter festivities. A group of diplomats were invited to tour Hwacheon and attend the festival.

“I think eating trout is much easier than catching them,” Polish Ambassador Krzysztof Majka said. It was his first time ice fishing, but his wife, Zofia, was bent on her knees, lowering the line expertly even though all that could be seen through the ice hole was pitch blackness.

Catching trout with bare hands is seen by many as the highlight of the festival, and throughout the day thousands of spectators gather around two pools carved out of ice, including one smaller area for children.

Those brave enough to face the icy waters – around 6 degrees Celsius (42 degrees Fahrenheit) – stripped down to just T-shirts and shorts provided at a changing room before hopping into the freezing water.

Reactions to what happens next differ between foreigners and Koreans, one supervisor said.

“The difference between foreigners and Koreans is that foreigners seem to really enjoy the process even if they don’t catch any fish while Koreans are determined to catch as many fish as they can since they paid an admittance fee.”

Some people collect the trout in their clothes to carry out more. Each person is limited to catching three fish and time in the pool is limited to five minutes. Staying in the frigid waters for longer can be dangerous.

Besides fishing, there are many other winter activities that can be enjoyed at the festival including ice and snow sledding, ice skating, ice hockey and snow football, along with a snowmen plaza and even a sled-making contest. Zip-lining is a popular new addition this year – zip liners pass over the 66,115-square-meter (16.3-acre) festival area.

ARTICLE FROM HTTP://KOREAJOONGANGDAILY.JOINSMSN.COM/

Contract Finalised – Gangwon Province

I received an early Christmas present on Friday, 23 December. I received an email telling me that my contract is now 100% finalised! I am placed in Gangwon Province, South Korea!

Gangwon province is on the eastern coast of South Korea, it is right next to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the border between North and South Korea. Scary. It’s also the coldest Province in South Korea. Luckely, also the most beautiful!

This is an extract from the Lonely Planet’s guide:

“From the soaring peaks of Seoraksan National Park to the tranquil beaches abutting the East Sea, Gangwon has all the elements for a postcard-perfect vacation.” YEAAAH! That’s my new home!

Mt. Seoraksan, Gangwon

In winter, Gangwon turns into a spectacular winter wonderland! There are a few good ski-resorts in this province and fantastic hiking trails. Some other adventure sports include kayaking, canoeing, jetskiing and rafting. On the calmer side, there are lots of Buddhist temples to visit (and even overnight at), the tours to the DMZ with barbed wire, military lookout posts, a captured North Korean

Mountain Hike, Gangwon

submarine and landmines (Okay, so that’s not too calm), and there are lots of lakes with ferry trips with great scenery. Bicycle rides through some of the humble folk villages should not be forgotten.

At night, the cities/towns turn into vibey, colourful  “kuierplekke” with lots of restaurants, bars and cafes, especially in the areas of the few universities in the region.

I am so damn excited. Take me to Gangwon already! I will be booking my ticket to Korea within the next week or so. Will probably leave around the 14th of February.

For more images: http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=gangwon&page=2

Pre-Korea

So it’s been more than a month since I got the news about passing my interview and I’m still waiting on news about which city/province I’ll be placed in. I will be getting the news within the next few weeks, after which I’ll get busy doing stuff like buying suitcases, booking my flights, sorting out banking stuff and searching for arctic clothes (yes, I’m expecting a warm, aggg, I mean a coooold welcome… like -10’C or something?).

Until then I will be learning some Korean to be able to order myself a meal, setting up a bucket list and spending as much time possible with the people and at the places in SA I love most.

I’m soooo exited. Even though people say “You’ll be there before you know it”, it feels like an eternity! 9 weeks remaining. Kom nooouuu!!! Ek kan nie wag nie!!!

I’ll be writing some “pre-Korea” stuff like bucket lists and some interesting info I find before the great adventure to Korea.

Hello!

Stare it down. STARE IT DOWN! Stare it down?

So it’s a bit of a funny name. And yes, it’s one of those you “just come up with” after 20 minutes of “I don’t know what to name this thing”.  And then I actually thought of the motivation behind the name.

Ever felt like doing something crazily bold, different, unexpected and soooo out of line? Well I did. And I still do. During the last few months of my Investment Management Honours studies, I desperately “needed” to explore the world. I had this urge to go to some country (at that stage, Italy) with unique cultures, food, language and as much “differentness” as possible. And then I was introduced to South Korea!

Yes, Korean cuisine is mostly based on rice, noodles, cat and dog meat. The economy, based on the manufacturing of weapons and other military equipment. There’s a raging war between North Korea and South Korea. Korea is a communistic country. Okay, so I’m sure that most people from South Africa will believe the above statements. I wouldn’t have known any better myself before doing a bit (or actually a lot) of research myself. In fact, the above statements (except for rice and noodles being part of their cuisine) are as incorrect as saying that Jo’burg is filled with lions and our main transport system is elephants.

So as fast as you can say “Korea”, I had all of my documents ready to apply for a position as English teacher at a public school in South Korea. Yes, an ENGLISH teacher after 4 years of studies in FINANCE! Only then did I realise that they are actually the most wired country on earth, they don’t eat pets, they have HUGE cities with trains traveling at 300km/h and there’s no “waging war”.

So to get back to the title… it’s about staring down your opponent. Fear. Fear of the future, fear of adventure, fear of life. And just powering through towards a goal of having a full life. No regrets. Will I regret the fact that I didn’t start my career a year earlier, directly after university? Don’t think so. Will I regret not having the adventure of a lifetime? I think so. In the next year we’ll test this.

Journey with me… Let’s make this one to remember!