Sunday, 30 August 2009

Jeongdongjin's interesting claims to fame or Korean history part 2

We are staying in the seaside resort of Jeongdongjin right now and this place has a interesting 3-fold claim to fame. First of all Jeongdongjin is in the Guiness book of records for having the world's closest train station to the sea - and it is very close indeed. Actually one of the train platforms doubles as the seaside promenade. Secondly, it has a cruise ship on a hill. Yes, you have read correctly. Here you can see a complete life sixe cruise ship set up on a hill high above the sea. The whole thing is a huge hotel complex and a major tourist attraction. And no, it has not been a real cruise ship before. It is a hotel built in the shape of one. Very clever business idea. They even charge admission to have a look inside.

But the biggest tourist attraction is a real North Korean submarine. And I will also give you the story behind it. In 1996 (!) the North Koreans launched a submarine to spy out South Korean military installations. 3 spies went ashore, did their job undiscovered and wanted to return to their submarine. This is when everything started to go wrong. The submarine got stuck on rocks in heavy sea. The captain apparently did not trust his crew, because he shot the entire crew of 11 men before setting fire and destroying all documents. He then went ashore with the remaining 9 soldiers (apparently more trustworthy than crew members) and tried to return to North Korea.

It took the South Koreans 49 days (!) to catch and/or kill these 'Red Army bandits' and 11 South Korean soldiers and 6 civilians 'died a glorious death' in the process. The stranded submarine is now set up in a 'Unification park' right next to an American warship that served in the Korean War and is a gift of the American government. It was interesting to see that the Germans are seen as sort of heroes in the accompanying 'security exhibition' where there were loads of references to the German re-unification.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Weird sightseeing part 4 - the Willy Park in Sinnnam

To explain the this towns main attraction, the 'Willy Park' I want to quote my guidebook: 'Sinnam legend has it that a young virgin drowned within sight of her boyfriend on a small rocky island offshore. The boy had hoped to save her but was unable to because of the rough seas. Shortly after her death, fishermen noticed tht the catch was dwindling and soon the town was sure that this 'unfulfilled' girl had cursed the fishing grounds.

All hope seemed lost, but when a fisherman heeding the call of nature did so facing the ocean, the next day's catch increased. Soon the village erected, um, erections in hopes that the penises would placate the frustrated ghost. The fishing yields returned to normal, and Sinnam's custom of showing Mr. Willy to the water remains to this day.'

The result is a Penis Sculpture festival including a giant phallus-carving contest. The festival's products are displayed in the 'Willy Park' and make for a great hour of sightseeing. See yourself in the pictures! By the way: It was awfully uncomfortable being the model in this picture. The sculpture was made out of plastic and awfully hot in the midday sun....
Unfortunately we heard rumours that fundamentalist Christians want to prevent further Willy festivals.

Weird sightseeing part 3 or caves and the like

I maybe better explain the meaning of this title a little bit more. As much as I like Korea now, I must say that there no real 'world-class' sights here - nothing like the pyramids in Egypt or the Acropolis in Greece. Still we are having an awful lot of fun sightseeing, because the Korean sights are usually very tacky and/or action oriented. So the attraction lies more in their weirdness than in their cultural significance.

One sight that could classify into world-class category though is the Hwanseon cave, one of the biggest caves in whole Asia. But the way to the cave is steep and long - it is a tough 1,3 km uphill hike. Not the nicest thing in the sun, but well worth the effort. The cave is indeed the biggest one I have ever been in. It even has various streams and waterfall running through it and therefore you have to walk on metal walkways. The whole circuit through the cave is 1,6 km and a constant up and down.

They somehow had to illuminate the whole scenery and for some reason they choose different coloured neon light chains for that. The whole thing now looks like a disco cave! But there are more interesting things: The cave features were given titles. And so we walked up to the 'summit of hope' descended into the 'valley of desires' crossed the 'bridge of love' into 'hell' and walked over the 'bridge of confessions' to see the 'mountain of life'. And after 1,5 hours in the cave's 12 degree C we were chilled enough to continue cycling.

But that was not the end of cave fun. Samcheok, our next stop boasts 2 cave museums. The buildings alone are worth a visit. One looks like a huge wedding cake dripping with brown icing, whereas the second one is shaped like a bat.

The second one was a real hoot. It consisted only of various cave mock-ups and was action filled. You could do some cave climbing on ropes and strangely enough there were no safety features there whatsoever. I wonder how many people had already injured themselves there. But beside somewhat scientific cave models it also displayed cave creatures and we could happily watch a dragon flashing his red neon eyes around. The fun factor was very high!

Bike trouble - part 2

At the very end of my trip with less than 2 weeks left to cycle I ended up with bike trouble - and big time as well!

It all started quite innocently with my bike stand. John does not have a bike stand and had parked his bike leaning against a wall. My bike was parked in front of it. All of a sudden his bike with 40 kg of crap (sorry, valuable equipment) on it fell and crashed into my bike. Result: My bike stand broke off and John and me were yelling at each other.

Next the bottom bracket started making some very weird noises again. It has not come loose (yet), but going uphill it sounds worse than an old steam engine. And then the real trouble started: Slowly but gradually the gear shifter stopped working. First it was just hard going, then I could not reach the lower gears any more and in the end it would not move at all.

But things got even worse: When we took the back wheel off to investigate the gear shift problem we discovered that a tooth had broken off the back sprocket! That night I did not like cycling at all any more. All this cannot happen when you are hiking. When hiking gear breaks, I can usually sew it or tape it, but bike trouble is a little bit more complicated. I started contemplating finishing my trip on a train. We decided to cycle to the next bigger town and try to repair the whole affair. And we just made it there in time before the gear shifter become totally stuck.

Part of the problem was the lack of tools. In order to open the cable box on my fabulous Rohloff speedhub you need a star key. Of course any reasonable person would have tested every nut and bolt on her bike before setting of on a major trip to have the right tool, but I had never thought about it. And to make matters worse I did not even have a spare shifter cable. So there we were not being able to open the cable box because we did not have the right tool and even if we had had the right it would not do us any good because we did not have a spare part?

Luckily the first tool shop in Samcheok did have star keys! We opened the cable box and saw what we had expected. The shifter cable had frayed and become stuck. Luckily I had posted the problem on a German internet bike forum and received loads of very good replies from which I had learnt that you can use any thin shifter cable as replacement. Life seemed good: We had the right tool and a spare part. But then it happened: The screw that fixes the shifter cable in the cable box did not budge at all - and then the screw's head wore out, the tool did not get any grip and all seemed lost. I saw myself on a train again and did not sleep very well that night.

Next morning we did a Grand Tour of Samcheok's tool shops. I must say that some things are easier in less developed countries. The people in the tool shops really knew how to deal with the problem. The first guy just took a bigger Allen key than needed and filed it to the right size to get some grip - it worked but the screw would still not budge. We were sent to another tool shop where we eventually hit the jack pot. The owner knew his stuff and drilled the screw out. I expected that he would ruin the thread doing that but no - everything was fine. And when we found spare shifter cables and a M4 headless screw in a bike shop nothing could stop us any more. Two hours and two fucked up shifter cables (cut off too short) later the gear shift was working better than ever before. I was very proud of John, because he had done all the repair?

But when we tried to fix the sprocket problem we were in for a bad surprise. We thought that you can use just any replacement sprocket - and that was very wrong! The sprocket was a special Rohloff part and of course not available in Korea. Even the only shop in whole Korea that deals with Rohloff does not have it. I could still ride the bike with the broken off tooth but should we risk it? I decided to do some internet research and the same German bike forum came to my rescue. I discovered an old thread discussing this exact problem and including an answer from Mr. Rohloff himself. Content: Teeth do not break out of Rohloff sprockets and if they do it is a quality problem and Rohloff will send out a spare part to wherever you are. I emailed Rohloff immediately and got an answer within 2 hours. This is what I call German efficiency. The answer was even better: Continue with the broken sprocket (it will not deteriorate) and we will replace it once you are back in Germany.

So now I will continue cycling with a functioning gear shift, no bike stand, a broken sprocket and a bottom bracket that squeaks like hell. Wish me luck for the rest of my trip!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Weird sightseeing in Korea - part 2

Don' t worry - no history lessons this time, just weird sightseeing...

I find it pretty interesting, what Koreans find interesting as a sightseeing spot. One example is a "musical fountain". Yes, it is just what you think it is: A fountain, that is spitting out water to music. We looked at the thing during the day and it looked pretty drab and nothing happened anyway. So we asked at the tourist information and where told that the fountain only works at night. John was very skeptical, but we nevertheless decided to go and have a look.

And what a surprise: Loads of tourists and locals were out there watching the spectacle as the fountain was brightly illuminated in the tackiest colours and water fountains were dancing to International and Korean pop songs. The "choreography" did not have much to do with the music, but it was very pleasant nevertheless. And not only the fountain was illuminated; the whole area was lit up and Jinju in Korea looked a little bit like Las Vegas...

The next unexpected sightseeing highlight was the Andong Traditional Paper Museum and Factory. Because John did not feel well that day we went there on a day trip by bus and when the bus driver dropped us at the entrance we immediately thought that we had made a major mistake. The whole place looked like a run down industrial complex and there were no other tourists in sight - and the next bus was only in an hour.... bummer.

So we decided to have a look anyway and stumbled across a different world. In this "factory" traditional paper was hand made - like hundreds of years ago. And you could wander around freely - no hard hats and apparently no work safety regulations either. First mulberry bark is cut into strips and boiled in hot water for 4 hours. The bark is than dyed white and all bad material is sorted out by hand. Then the bark strips are chopped up into a mash and dyed (for coloured paper). This mash is put into big basins and diluted with water until you have a very gooey liquid. This liquid is collected on bamboo mats sheet for sheet and the water squished out - a very tiring process.

The sheets are eventually put on hot metal to dry and voila: Your paper is ready! They even had a "test area" for tourists, where we could make our own paper! Very interesting experience - makes you really appreciate the ready availability of paper nowadays.

One other thing that Koreans are extremely fond of are folk villages. Contrary to what I expected these folk villages are still lived in, so you are basically walking around people's gardens. I find these places quite disappointing, mainly because they do not look much different from what we see everyday when cycling. Also, Korean rural architecture is not the most exciting one either, especially if you wonder around these villages on a hot day with no shade....

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Cycling in Korea

Cycling in Korea is very much similar like cycling in Japan - both countries are extremely mountaineous. 70% of both countries are covered with forest, because it is too steep for any sort of agriculture. But this is also very the similarities end.

I had thought that Japan is pretty hard work, but this was before I came to Korea. Gradients of 10% + are normal here, meaning that I am very, very often pushing my bike because it is just too steep. My bottom bracket is making all sorts of funny noises again and my speed hub should have had an oil change 7,000 km ago, so steep climbs is what I least need now. Luckily we could find a lot of quiet country roads that compensate for the climbs.

Our Lonely Planet guidebook makes cycling in Korea sound like a suicide attempt and I was very much scared to begin with. Korean drivers are by far not as polite as Japenese, but also not much worse than other countries. Only city traffic is horrible and unfortunately, there are hardly any bike lanes. I dread the day when we will cycle into Seoul....

We are also facing a new problem here: water! Although taps are ubiquitous, our guidebooks tells us not to drink tap water. Other foreigner we asked do not do it either and in restaurants you are served filtered water. So where do we get drinking water from? It is not a problem around lunch time, because we usually fill up with water in the restaurant where we eat lunch - now that we can afford it we are eating out a lot! The problem is getting water for camping in the evening, but luckily John came up with a very creative solution: Churches! Half of the Korean population is Christian and therefore churches are everywhere. I have to add here that Korean churches are about the most ugly ones I have seen. They are all very modern and very tasteless, but they are usually open and have a water dispenser. So ask and the Lord will give!

Kimchi variations
Another nice addition to our diet are the orchards we are cycling through right now. Apples, persimmon, peaches everywhere. Unfortunately, they are all in orchards, so that we are not really eating much of it as opposed to the fruit trees in New Zealand that were ownerless. But with the orchards comes a very new and unpredicted threat: Bird scares! One evening we had already set up our tent and were in the process of cooking when all of a sudden at 7 pm a gas gun went off about 150 m away. Although I realised that it was only a bird scare and nobody is shooting at me I could not get used to the noise: Whenever the gun went off I spilt noodle soup over my pants.... No way I could sleep through that so we had to find a new camp site in the dark... Shit happens!

Friday, 14 August 2009

Weird sightseeing or a short introduction to the history of Korea

I have to admit that I did not know much about Korean history (I have to add to my defense that I never planned coming here either!) and was very much amazed about what I learnt here. First of all: Have you ever heard of the kingdom of Silla? I never had! So here is the story: The Korean peninsula was first unified in the 6th century under the kingdom of Silla, which lasted until the 9th century. A flourishing Buddhist high culture developped here, when Barbarians were fighting over Europe and America was almost a millenium away from being even discovered. Silla is contemporary Gyeongju, where John and me are currently staying.

Grave mounds in Sill
Surprisingly much has survived 1,400 years and we have seen marvellous gold crowns, fantastic temples and elaborate Buddha statues. The most conspicuous leftever, however, are Silla's burial mounds, a sort of Korean pyramid. Depending on the importance of the buried the mounds can be quite high: The biggest is 22 m high and has a circumference of 240 m, although I have to admit that after one afternoon and about 50 burial mounds the whole thing can get a bit boring...

Fast forward to the 16th century and the appearance of Korea's arch enemy, the Japanese. Koreans and Japanese still don't like each other and you will soon see why. Japanese pirates had been raiding the Korean waters for centuries (no big surprise: Where else would you have gone as a Japanese living on islands surrounded by water and nothing else close by except Korea?), but in 1592 they came in earnest and conquered the whole Korean peninsula.

For 7 years the war went back and forth and finally the Japanese retreated - because they had bigger troubles at home. They left the Koreans traumatized - even now more than 400 years later the Japanese invasion is a big issue. In the city of Jinju we saw a huge fortress that resisted the Japanese attack - including an incredibly tacky 3D animated movie about the brave Korean resistance against the atrocious Japanese.

War memorial in Busan
But the Japanese came back in the early 1900s and very late in history Korea became a Japanese colony (I had always thought that only European countries had colonies...). The Japanese brutally colonialized Korea, even forcing Koreans to speak Japanese and take on Japanes names. After the defeat of the Japanese in WW II Korea was divided along the 38th parallel into an American and Soviet zone (now does that ring a bell to Germans?). In 1950 North Korean Kim Il Sung launched a surprise attack at South Korea and started the Korean war. The US and a UN division supported the South and when these troops had almost conquered the whole North, all of a sudden the Chinese marched in and luck changed sides. By 1953 both Americans and Chinese were fed up with this war and declared a truce. Korea remained divided, despite protests from both South and North Korean sides, who wanted to fight until victory and did not like a truce.

The Korean war is of course a crucial topic in Korea and various sights are related to it. We got our first impression of the war in Busan, where there is the world's only UN cemetery. The Koreans always refer to their supporters as UN troops, but it was mainly an American war: 35,000 of a total of 37,000 UN soldiers killed in the Korean war were Americans. Strangely enough the only other relevant UN nationality in this war were the British (did not surprise me) and the Turkish (did surprise me a lot and the guides at the UN cemetary only gave one explanation for that: Koreans and Turkish are "brothers", they share the same Ural-Altaic language roots?!). Whatever, the UN cemetary boasts a very impressive and brand new war memorial and interestingly enough, some 8 months earlier I had seen the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC.

We stumbled upon a very crude war memorial by pure coincidence; getting off a ferry on the island of Geojedo we saw signposts to a prisoner of war camp memorial. We expected a totally deserted bone dry memorial and could not have been more wrong. The whole complex was heaving with hundreds of Koreans and should rather be called theme park than war memorial. You enter the complex on an escalator through a tank with all the good guys like Truman and MacArthur on the right and the bad guys like Mao and Stalin on the left - as cardboard figures, of course.

The complex then takes you through a history course with dioramas, videos and statues - all very educational. You can see the former prisoner of war barracks and relive daily camp life. They have even set up photo opportunities for "experiencing the latrines" - I am not joking here, see the attached photo. As Germans take history very seriously I was a little bit shocked about this light-hearted approach to war atrocities, but I nevertheless had my picture taken. This post will probably be continued once we arrive in Seoul...

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Love motels

Here in Korea we are getting used to a new form of accomodation: Love motels!!! Before you get too excited: Love motels are a very normal and socially accepted form of accomodation here - even the visitor's center send you there. And many people staying here are just normal tourists. But: They are still love motels and that creates some interesting features.

First of all they have all sorts of interesting names ranging from "Sweet love", "Versace" and "Liebe" (which is German for love and I have no clue why anyone would call a Korean hotel like that). You can easily recognise them from outside as they have a lot of flashy features like neon signs, baroque architecture or tacky wall paintings. They all have sight-protected parking areas so that your neighbour does not find out what you do in your free time. Privacy continues at check-in: The "reception" is a tiny hole in the wall, so that you can not see the receptionist - and vice versa. But if 2 Western cyclists show up, the receptionist immediately comes out of his or her cubby hole to talk business. Depending on the quality of the love hotel the reception area is anything from ultra modern flash design to incredibly tacky posters of naked Cupids, Venuses and roses. It is absolutely acceptable to have look at the room first. The flashy ones even have neon posters outside with pictures to choose from and in the crappy ones you just go and have a look. And by the way: You can usually rent videos and DVD's of all sorts in the reception as well...

The room itself can be anything from a real dive with tacky posters on the wall to cover the dirt underneath to high tech establishments - all depending on the price. Right now we stay in a room with the following features: Huge bed (you would not have expected that, would you?), AC and fan, mood lighting (yes, you can turn on dim red light!), hot and cold water dispenser, fridge, UV-light sterilizer for cups and glasses (I have never seen that before), a huge flat plasma TV screen with DVD player and loudspeaker boxes, telephone, hairdryer, all sorts of body lotions and perfume, free energy drinks and free condoms. But best of all: The room has 2 (two!!!) computers with internet access! So you can sit in your love motel room and send emails to each other?! I don't know, but I really appreciate it because John and me can now eventually update blogs and send emails as long as we like! And what does all that luxury cost? 40,000 Won (about 25 EUR)!!!

Monday, 3 August 2009

South Korea

I liked Japan so much that South Korea will have a very difficult position.... but after 3 days in Korea I can already say that it is not bad.

First of all it is much cheaper than Japan. It is not dirt cheap, but very affordable. And so we are eating out twice a day, something that will bust your budget in Japan.

And that brings me to the second topic - my most favourite one: food! Japanese food was very elaborate and sophisticated and tasted mostly of - nothing! Korean food is not very elaborate, but very spicy and hot - and cheap!!!! My favourite is Bibimbap, rice with all sorts of vegies and a fried egg on top - you mesh it all up before you eat it. Looks pretty yuk, but tastes very nice. Today we had our first on-the-table-barbecue. You sit on the floor with a very low table with a hole in the middle in front of you. The waiter then places a bucket with glowing coal into the hole and puts a grill on top - ready is your barbecue. Everything comes with a huge variety of very tasty side dishes, foremost the favourite kimchi, but also pickled radishes, chilis, seaweed and the like. Very delicious and very cheap! We still have to try seafood, but we have already been to a very exotic seafood market, where you can eat fish I did not even they existed before.

Thirdly, Koreans are much more outgoing than Japanese. We are constantly asked where we are from and everybody wishes us a nice stay in Korea. Strangely enough more Koreans seem to speak more English than the Japanese.

The downside is that now is holiday season in Korea and we could see that here on the beach were you could hardly move any more. Koreans were stockpiled like sardins in a tin.

Also Korean drivers are by far not as polite as the Japanese. We have not yet cycled here, but I have already seen a lot of drivers jumping red traffic lights - impossible in Japan!