Change of Address

I’m writing over here now, with some fellow development studies students: MDevBlog

There’s probably not going to be much tentacle-related content over there though, so be warned

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Map – weekends around Korea

This blog has obviously come to an end since we’ve left Korea, but I just remembered that at some point before we left I bothered to put all the posts into a map and then forgot all about it, so here it is.

Each marker represents a weekend, except for the ones on Jeju which require a few more days. If you click on a marker you can see links to the blog post for that weekend and the pictures.

We often wished we had a map like this when we were trying to plan weekends, so hopefully it’s useful for other tourists/teachers.

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Biking Jeju

Hello everyone,

The actual description of our 5-day Jeju bike ride ended up being published in the Jeju Weekly, so you can see it online here:

As usual, lots of extra photos on flickr.


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Cycling around Jeju

At the beginning of August we got our last mini-vacation, and since we only found out a couple of weeks before we decided to try bicycling around Jeju instead of going abroad. The circumference of Jeju is about 200km, and neither of us really had any idea what that would translate into in terms of biking difficulty, but we found a few vague accounts online by people who seemed to have survived, as well as this hilarious budget vs luxury tour suggestion from Korea Tourism, so off we went.

bikes, jeju island

We did it in three full days and two half days, but you could definitely do it more quickly. We even met two really intense guys who were doing it in just two days. If you want time to see some of the tourist stuff or take regular swimming breaks though our schedule felt about right.

The ride is almost completely flat, and for most of it you can go along the quiet coast road rather than the highway which is nice. The worst parts are the hills on the way into Seogwipo and the parts where you have to go through the city in Seogwipo or Jeju City (especially Jeju City).

Here is the map and the basic logistics of the ride. I’ll eventually (probably) write a post for each day, but this is basically what happened:

  • Day 1:  From Jeju City (near the airport) to Hyeopjae beach. – About 30 km.
  • Day 2: From Hyeopjae to Seogwipo (World cup stadium) – 60 km
  • Day 3: From Seogwipo to Seongsan Ilchubong  – 55 km
  • Day 4: From Seongsan Ilchubong to Gimnyeong – 22km
  • Day 5: From Gimnyeong to Jeju City – 30km
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Boryeong Mud Festival

  • Boryeong Mud Festival allegedly grew out of the fact that Boryeong has mud that’s “good for health”, but the festival in practice is really not so much about well-being as it is about drinking and having mud fights. mud fest
  • I know this sounds crazy, but there was less mud than I was expecting. Also the mud was more like soupy clay than real mud. Not that the mud wasn’t fun, but it was pretty contained within the little “games” area (read: bouncy-castles covered in mud). mud pool
  • On the other hand there were exactly as many embarrassing drunk foreigners as I was expecting. I get that anything called “mud festival” is going to be a drunken good time, but when it’s 10:00am and you’re already wasted and yelling random annoying shit at passing Koreans in English you’re just embarrassing everyone.Soju bottles
  • Anyway, it was a good time. The muddy bouncy castles are pretty fun, and when the lines got too annoying Boryeong also has a beach which was nice.Boryeong beach
  • I am awesome at mud games: First I beat Ji-young at a game where you raced to the end of a bouncy-castle corridor. Then, I beat a Korean girl I’d never met at “Ringing the Bell Quickly In the Mud”, which is where you stand in a bouncy-castle seperated by a wall but connected by a rope, and you have to tug-of-war your way to the end of your half by dragging your opponent forward and then ring a bell. I felt a bit awkward winning this one actually, since I didn’t know this girl and I couldn’t even see her so I couldn’t tell if I was flinging her around too much (you know, with my impressive upper-body strength). She seemed alright though, and I think it was ok to beat her because Adam then lost to her boyfriend. I also beat Adam at a staring contest, though I guess that wasn’t technically a mud game.

mud race

  • Mud is the best social lubricant: It could be because most people were also drunk much of the weekend, but mudfest was really a time of strangers wandering freely into your personal space. When we went to the mud fountain (more like mud troughs really) to get coated before going into the games, we were immediately swarmed by three or four total strangers who took it upon themselves to help slather us in mud and pose for pictures without so much as a ‘hello’. This trend continued throughout the festivities, and also extended to the small flock of middle-aged photographers who spent the festival ducking-and-weaving their DSLRs through the flying mud and thrusting their zoom lenses into everyone’s faces. randoms photographing randoms
  • We all fail at sparker-writing. We tried to spell “love” but Adam accidentally turned it into the much more ghetto “lovR” (with a backwards R and all). Then we tried to write the date, but apparently someone thought it was still 2010 and also we got the 6 backwards. Then we also got the “e” in “Beth” backwards, and when we finally got it together for “Mud!” one of the sparklers went out. The moral of the story is that several glasses of an unholy (though surprisingly drinkable) cocktail of Korean liquors is not good for anyone’s spelling. sparkler-writing
  • When we came back on Sunday we had to go through Seoul, and we made the excellent decision to go to Taco Rico in Gangnam, where the tacos were so amazing I forgave the weird cheese sauce they put on the nachos.

taco rico, gangnam

  •  Most importantly, I took this picture of Adam. Internet, I hope you treasure it always: adam at mudfest
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Hiking Seoraksan

**Warning: the first chunk of this is mostly logistics. If you’re not likely to climb Seoraksan in the near future, scroll down until you start seeing scenic mountainscapes.**

The three highest mountains in Korea are Hallasan, Jirisan, and Seoraksan, so climbing Seoraksan was part two of our quest to climb the set. The highest peak on Seoraksan (Daechongbong Peak) is 1708m so Seoraksan is the third-highest. It’s out on the east coast, near Sokcho.

We had originally planned to climb Jirisan that weekend – we even booked a shelter, which requires you to log onto the shelter-reservations website at exactly 10am two weeks before so that you can try to click “reserve” faster than the hundreds of Korean hiking nuts also trying to click “reserve”. Unfortunately the weather on Jirisan that weekend turned out to thunderstorms on Saturday and thunderstorms on Sunday, so the park was closed. But since we were already all packed up though we decided to just to go Seoraksan instead and try our luck there.

The weather turned out to be almost perfect – five minutes of light rain, a bit of sun, and not too hot the whole weekend, so we were lucky in that way. We weren’t so lucky in other ways though: getting to Sokcho turned into a bit of an ordeal: The Incheon-Sokcho bus was full, then we missed the first bus into Seoul, so by the time we arrived in Seoul the Seoul-Sokcho bus was also full, so we spent over an hour wandering around the bus terminal in the dark in the pouring rain trying to find some food and a room. We ended up eating instant ramen and only getting four hours of sleep, but we did make it onto the 6:30 bus Saturday morning so we were finally in Seoraksan park by about noon.

Here is a Korean hiking group having their picture taken with the Buddha at the entrance:

Seorak Valley entrance

My cartographer father’s blood pressure is probably going to skyrocket when he sees this compass-less, not-to-scale abomination, but here is a map of the trails to Daecheongbong peak that I drew in Paint. Seoraksan is a huge park with many different trails and peaks, so the real maps look pretty confusing:

Seoraksan: Cheonbuldong Valley to Daecheongbong to Dragon Ridge

The grey line is the “short” path to Daecheongbong, which (we’ve heard) is a straight-up 4-hour-each-way climb from the Osaek hot springs entrance. We hate ourselves though, so we decided we didn’t want to go up or down the “short” way, because we’d heard that both of the longer courses from the main Seorak Valley entrance (the Cheonbuldong Valley trail and the Dinosaur  Ridge) are really impressive. They were, but of course we never did the Osaek path so I don’t know if it’s really boring or not.

Anyway here’s the hike we did: up the Cheonbuldong Valey (green line), to Daecheongbong (Seorak’s highest peak), then down along the Dinosaur Ridge (purple line). For anyone planning to do this:

  • Entrance gates to Biseondae Rock: 40 minutes on flat dirt roads
  • Biseondae to Yangpok shelter: 2 hours of very gentle climbing
  • Yangpok shelter to Huiungak Shelter: 1 hour of mostly stairs and very steep trail
  • Huiungak Shelter to Daecheongbong: 2 hours of stairs and STEEP trail, and another 30 minutes of fairly flat walking once you get up onto the ridge
  • Daecheongbong down to Huiungak Shelter: 1 hour if you jog down the stairs
  • Huiungak Shelter to Biseondae rock: This is the famous Dinosaur Ridge. The 5km ridge itself is four hours of Up-and-Down-Up-and-Down, and then there’s a 2.5 hour descent (mostly steep downhill) to Biseondae.
  • Biseondae rock to park entrance: again, forty minutes on the flat

If you add all of this up, you get…. almost 14 hours of actual walking time. I suppose if you start before dawn (as long as it’s summer) and are fitter than we are you COULD do it all in one day, but it would definitely be an ordeal. We slept at Yangpok shelter because it’s the only one that doesn’t require reservations, but really that still left us with a crazily long second day. We did the second day in 14 hours, which included a decently long lunch break and only a couple of shorter breaks, so starting at dawn we finished just as the sun was setting. If you are a sane person, you should reserve a spot in Jungcheong shelter which is right at Daecheongbong peak so that you can split the hike more evenly, or at least at Huiungak.

Anyway, here we are going along the first part of Cheonbuldong Valley, after Biseondae rock

Cheonbuldong Valley

A couple of hours later we arrived at Yangpok shelter. This one doesn’t take reservations, it’s first-come-first-served, but we were told the check-in office didn’t open for another hour.

Yangpok Shelter

We decided that since we had an hour until the offices opened we would make a sprint to the next shelter, to save time the next morning. The section from Yangpok to Huiungak shelter is probably the prettiest part of the valley:Cheondanpokpo Falls

It’s also very steep though, so after an hour of climbing we arrived exhausted at Huiungak only to be told that actually Huiungak is a reservations-only shelter now. Bad Internet! Anyway here’s a picture of one of the hundreds of chipmunks that surround all the shelters:Chipmunk at Huiungak Shelter

So we traipsed back down to Yangpok shelter and got two spots of floor in this giant bunk-bed arrangement. They rent you sleeping pads and blankets too; it’s all very convenient and a bargain at $8

Yangpok Shelter

Next morning we got up at dawn, climbed back up to Huiungak Shelter, and here we are setting off from Huiungak towards the peak (the red line on the map)

the neverending stairs

The next two hours were a steep and horrible climb up staircases and uneven trail stairs. When we made it to this open platform thing I just about cried because by the kilometer count we had only come 1.3 km from the shelter, and we still had another 1.2 to get to the peak. But it turned out that the second half was mostly a flat walk along the ridge so it was ok after all. platform at the end of the climb from Huiungak

So about half an hour later we arrived at Jungcheong shelter. That’s Daecheongbong in the background there, just an easy ten-minute climb away.

Jungcheong shelter

Hooray!! This rock says Daecheongbong. Here we are on the third-highest spot in Korea. It was a bit clouded over though so no view.Daecheongbong peak!

After some victory cheese and crackers we jogged down the many, many stairs and made it back to Huiungak shelter in about an hour. Then we cooked some ramen, fended off a few chipmunks, and set off for the Dinosaur Ridge, which in Korean is Gongnyongneungseon.

Dinosaur Ridge (Gongnyongneungseon)

The “ridge” part is 5km, and especially after the climb to Daecheongbong it wasn’t an easy 5km. It basically goes up-and-down-up-and-down the whole way, though there are a few flat bits. It never goes up or down that far, but it’s still tiring after a couple of hours. On the other hand if you get a semi-clear day it’s pretty spectacular.

Dinosaur Ridge (Gongnyongneungseon)

It was sliiightly steep in parts, though at least the park had helpfully put in lots of ropes and bars in the more difficult parts.

Dinosaur Ridge (Gongnyongneungseon)

Dinosaur ridge

Again though, worth it for the view.

Dinosaur Ridge (Gongnyongneungseon)

After the 5km ridge we STILL had another 3.7km descent to get back down to civilization. At this point we started to rush because we didn’t want to have to do the last kilometer with the flashlight and also we were starting to feel a deep, primal urge to get off the godamn mountain as soon as possible.

Anyway the descent was rocky and steep and not fun, but we did make it to the entrance area of the park just as the sun was setting, and even managed to find the bus back to the express terminal in Sokcho, buy tickets to Incheon for the next morning, and get some food before collapsing into this oddly cheap caste-shaped hotel behind the terminal.

Sokcho love motel

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Templestay at Golgulsa, part 1: Life of the Buddha

Korean Buddhism (the Seon school, specifically) is currently on a sort of building – and therefore fundraising – spree, which from the ground means that every temple in the country is determined to sell you roof tiles. At about $10, purchasing one of these roof tiles entitles you to write a message of your choice upon it, which will become enshrined in Buddhist construction once the tile is used to repair or build a roof. Generally, the messages seem to be rather specific requests for high grades on standardized tests (in Korean or Japanese), extremely flowery shout-outs to Buddhists everywhere (in French), or vague benedictions from people who barely know how to spell “Buddhism” (in English). The monks are pretty determined to get you to buy one of these things, but things aren’t quite as bad as in China where you would get cold-approached by a pair in orange robes who would say nothing but “How much money will you give us?”.

None, mothafuckaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

Seon Buddhism also makes money with its Templestay program, which as the name suggests involves paying a temple for room, board, and the right to participate in religious activities with the monks. The attendees were mostly Korean Buddhists with a fair sprinkling of curious foreigners, including a bunch of English teachers and a few tourists.

Both of us studied Buddhism a bit in school, but this was our first real encounter with the religion. Two things I think immediately jump out from the experience:

1) Buddhist monks wake up really, really early.

2) Buddhism involves a lot more excruciatingly uncomfortable seated positions than I had imagined.

You can do a Templestay at many of the temples throughout Korea, but if you have to pick only one I would go with the temple we stayed at, Golgulsa (골굴사; 骨窟寺; Bone-Cave-Temple). First of all, Golgulsa is situated around its namesake: centuries old ruins including a cave temple and a relief of the Buddha carved into a mountain.

Perhaps more interestingly to most, Golgulsa is not just a temple but the world headquarters of a Korean Buddhist martial art called Sunmudo (선무도; 禪武道; Zen-Martial-Art ). Stays there include twice-daily opportunities to work on your spin-kicks under the tutelage of real deal ninja monks. Here is a link to a few of them doing their thing:

When we were visiting, it was, unfortunately, pouring rain, which meant that many of the activities were cancelled. Normally, you get archery practice (which we were sad to miss out on) and a chance to partake in community work with the monks (less sad). We just got a few hours to wander the temple grounds, relax, meditate if we wanted, whatever. We mostly wandered around and took pictures.

Before we get into the actual events in the temple, let’s talk a bit about Buddhism in general. Being myself neither an enlightened being nor an expert, I can only give you a garbled version of what I learned in school while attending and later TAing courses on the religious, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as “the Buddha” was, following many aeons of spiritual cultivation, born for the final time to royalty about 2500 years ago in what is now Nepal.  Perhaps because he stood upright and declared “this will be my final birth” immediately after being born, or maybe because he bore the 32 marks of the great man, ranging from “a nice smile” to “sexual organs being concealed in a sheath” to “taut calf muscles like an antelope”, his father suspected the boy was special, and sent him to an astrologer. The astrologer prophesied that the Buddha would be one of two kinds of great man: an unstoppable, world-ruling king, or an unparalleled spiritual leader.

Birth of the Buddha. Credit: Jonathan S. Bell,

Daddy Gautama, being rather more the world-ruling type, set out to make sure his son would see nothing that might lead him to any sort of spiritual attainment. The Buddha spent the first 29 years of his life in a pleasure palace built just for him, where he had a harem full of women, lions to shoot with this bow, and all sorts of other great stuff.

Things turned sour one day when, on a chariot ride, Gautama saw an old man for the first time. This sight, and the line of questioning revealing the existence of ageing it prompted, led the Buddha to take further excursions from the palace. On these later trips Gautama encountered a sick man, a corpse, and a wandering ascetic. In this way he learned about the existence of disease, death, and spirituality. The Buddha’s father’s plan had backfired: the discovery of suffering at such a late age proved so traumatic for Gautama that he immediately desired a permanent escape from it through spiritual attainment.

No longer able to take any pleasure in his castle – even the concubines weren’t fun anymore after Gautama saw them asleep, which apparently disgusted him – the Buddha desired to escape and become a wandering ascetic himself. His father was having none of that, and posted guards at the entrances of all the doors. He declared that Siddhartha was to be crowned king within the week. To make matters worse, Gautama’s wife at this moment bore the Buddha a son, which he rather unfairly named “Fetter”.

Exactly how the Buddha leaves the castle varies from story to story I think, but in the version I remember gods descend from the sky to put all the guards to sleep, after which point he just ups and flies away on a horse. However he got out, the Buddha next joined a commune of extreme ascetics and basically did not eat for 6 years. By all accounts, he lost a lot of weight:

Image credit: You can buy similar statues at various places throughout Korea.

In the process, the Buddha mastered the systems of all his teachers, exceeding even them in austerity and supernatural power (which Buddhism makes quite clear will be the result of cultivation, though aspirants are instructed to ignore any powers they gain as they distract from enlightenment). He sensed, however, that this was bringing him no closer to his ultimate goal of escape from suffering. While contemplating, the Buddha recalled a time as a child when he, while sitting beneath a tree, his mind had become very quite and peaceful. He decided that maintenance of this state – called dhyana – in Buddhist theory, was what would get him to enlightenment.

Unfortunately, the Buddha was way too hungry to feel peaceful, so he set out to find some food, much to the chagrin of the forest folk. This is how he came up with the doctrine of the Middle Way – neither extreme austerity, nor a life of pleasure, but something in between (though still quite austere by most people’s standards). Anyways, after getting fed by a passing young woman, the Buddha decided that he was going to sit beneath a tree and not move until he had escaped suffering.

During this meditation, the Buddha was tempted by Maya, the personification of suffering. Maya sent demons in the form of beautiful women to tempt them, which the Buddha promptly transformed into hags. Next came armies of demons armed with swords, spears, and hand grenades, as you can see:

That didn’t work either, because the Buddha erected a sort of force-field around himself by assuming the above meditation posture, thereby “taking the Earth as witness to his oath”.

Somehow managing to maintain his concentration through all this, the Buddha achieved enlightenment and assumed the name “Shakyamuni”. He discovered what Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths, which are:

  1. To live is to suffer. (or just: suffering exists)
  2. Suffering is caused by attachment.
  3. Suffering is ended by dissolving attachment.
  4. Attachment is dissolved by adherence to the Eightfold Path (eight general moral principles; look them up if you want)

The Buddha then set out to evangelize the people and got into all sorts of adventures. He formed the Buddhist community, called the Sangha, with and to whom he taught the means of cultivation, called the Dharma. Together, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha form the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism. According to the Dalai Lama, anyone who “takes refuge” in the Three Jewels is to be considered a Buddhist in good standing.

Some of the stuff that happens to the Buddha between his death and his enlightenment is interesting, but I’m not going to get into most of it. My favorite is the Buddha’s encounters with his evil cousin Devadatta. Devadatta wanted to lead the Sangha, but the Buddha was having none of it. This made him angry so he began hatching a series of Wile-E-Coyote style schemes to kill his teacher. First, he hired a hitman. The hitman was himself to be killed by two other hitmen, who would meet their fates at the hands of four hitmen, who in turn would be killed by eight more hitmen. This didn’t work because all of the hitment promptly converted to Buddhism upon seeing the Buddha. Next, Devadatta attempted to drop a boulder on the Buddha’s head, but the boulder just kind of missed, though it did succeed in slightly wounding the Buddha’s foot.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Growing tired of murder, Devadatta requested that the Buddha impose a number of pointless rules on monks, then used his refusal as an excuse to cause a schism in the community. This was briefly effective, but the Devadatta sect returned to the Buddha after having the Dharma properly explained to them. Finally, Devadatta got a man-killer elephant drunk so it would attack the Buddha, which didn’t work because the Buddha was just too loving. It did, however, kill one of his followers, who was also enlightened. Having simultaneously committed all three of Buddhisms worst sins – killing an enlightened being, injuring a Buddha, and causing a schism in the sangha – a pit opened beneath Devadatta’s feet and he was immediately swallowed by Buddhism’s worst hell. So long folks!

Next post: what we actually did at the temple, and East Asian Buddhism

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