Thursday, 27 January 2011

Winter Sonata. ''Romantic” trip to Chuncheon Part 2

In the morning we woke up later than planned. It was so quiet in the apartment of our host. Such quiet I have not experienced on the long run up till now. What was scary in the evening when we got here suddenly appeared to be so bright and full of sun.

That settlement had been 30 years old up till now as our host explained. Indeed he had what people in Korea hardly have any longer. Keys to his apartment. A set of small metal thingies which give a feeling of a real home.

This morning it was even colder. -23 according to weather forecast. We were laughing our cold off all the time. After all two women on the go is always lots of fun, once they start joking it never ends.

The plan for today was seeing islands on the lakes. Several of them had been also pictured in Winter Sonata. It had been a one chance in a million to see what Korean people consider romantic.

We headed towards Jungdo Island on the lake near city center. This time we had been from Europe and from India for the purpose of taxi driver curiosity. Freezing cold got even inside the cab. 15 minutes after leaving the apartment we could not feel our feet any longer. Ajoshi wasn't much talkative either. He had been watching tv on his car and probably cursed the fate of his job. Blue morning sky was totally clear, whiteness of the snow unreal for the city's vincinity, looked like taken straight from Queen of Snow fary tale. Would anyone through a piece of ice into my eye this day? Or would I meet someone who would melt it away?

On a ferry to Jungdo Island it seemed that only foreigners can be crazy enough to do any outdoor sightseeing in this weather. Just us and the captain of the floating device. A thought crossed my head, what if something happens to this boat in freezing cold like this. Sun reflected on the icy water. By this time Yukti was hungry but we were still stubbornly on the go. Weird are these foreigners.

        -   Call us 5' before you want to go back. - worried captain told us.
         Apparently he was not sure if we get lost on the island or not. It was the nicest ever approach in my life, private ferry services for not that expensive price of 5000KRW. We got off at the bank and we saw the island. Not a desert island though, a bunch of Koreans headed desparately to the ferry from the freezing cold outside. And us...headed exactly there.

We saw a plastic orange tent serving as a waiting room for a ferry. Somebody resourceful had also made a live fire in the metal barrel exactly like for homeless people somewhere around dark corners of NY or any other city. . In such circumstances the very fact that there is a roof waiting somewhere makes one happy. Very happy. Even if the aircon is noisy washrooms are not private and the nightwatch sees all of your actions.

After 200m of a walk Yukti asked:
-    Can you stand this?
-    No I can't Yukti, it's over. Let's get somewhere under the roof and try to figure out what's here.
-    Ok.

We got inside the local equivalent of something between a kiosk a convenience store and a restaurant. In the middle of it coal heater was settled under traditional huge pot boiling water for whatever reason. Ajoshi behind the counter merely glanced at us and got back to reading Chosun Ilpo. Frozen, we slowly let ourselves relax near the warmth. Feeling of desparation appeared on Yukti's face when we bought onion chips just not to annoy the owner of our shelter too much.

-    All this way from Suwon and we bought chips. We sit and we eat chips. This is something we can do at home.

Burst of sarcastic laugh on my side had put a period to this statement. No matter how motivated I am, -23 degrees is not a temperature for me to handle. My camera would also give up soon.

We headed for a walk towards the pension where they pictured Winter Sonata. It crossed my mind that I understand what is it what Korean public considers romantic. The camp site combined of some 30 small wooden cabins which can fit a family was situated at the lakeside. Away from the city noise, away from civilization. Remote, and underdeveloped for a Korean standard at least. In a country of constant homogenous constructions and no diversity such places can indeed be called romantic. They touch this gentle part of soul in a person.

-   Can you imagine walking hand in hand with a beloved one on crunching snow like this in freezing cold? - asked Yukti.
-   Yes Yukti, oh yes, I can.

Same thought apparently crossed our heads in the very same moment. Indeed, this would be nice.

Sarcastic humour left us soon as we headed to a homeless barrel. It had been surrounded by a lot of ajummas and girls on sightseeing. Finally we were not only two desperados. They shared with us whatever they had, it touched my heart not for the first time how they share whatever limited resources they have. These were some sticky cookies and pieces of baguette. Filled our stomaches for the time being. Because you are a guest and because you are welcome. Such is Korean heart. Such is the part of it which I genuinely love.

Back in downtown we asked for anything to eat and proud locals had recommended us Dalgalbi of course.

-   Apero hagu uenchok and you are there. Straight and on the left.

I looked ahead and thought that no, Dalgalbi can wait until I visit Chuncheon anytime in my life again. Maybe that time it will be different? Somehow, I don't remember when, we ended up at E-Mart because it was warm. Finally warm.

Such was the trip to a city of Chuncheon. It left me with the impression that what humans perceive as romantic is what touches the primeaval part of human consciousness which is connected to nature. It brings me up the words of Gary Snyder, converted buddhist and poet: ''Culture which cuts off from natural and wild life around us and which denies the wild life inside us drives to very dangerous phenomena which will probably destroy humanity one day”.

Chuncheon 16th January 2011

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Big Chill

...or what Caucasian expats do after hours and why I like it.
Grace, Mona, Iri... saranheyo...Nikolai is missing here...

I usually write here about Korea and Koreans, language, cuisine, people, places. But this post will be different.

My cross-cultural couch told me once that an expat always hangs among vacum space and has to learn how to live with it. Has to learn how to recognize symptoms of unfitting and overcome an expatriate crisis.

Away from the natural environment of family and friends everyone encounters difficult moments. Body language, communication patterns, hierarchy, and all sorts of non-verbal signals are sometimes too different to create genuine connection with anyone. Especially if you are an expatriate Caucasian female in the world.

An expatriate success is when you fit in. Not in terms of replacing your own culture with another but in terms of getting bi-cultural skills. People are not born with this, it is not easy to acquire such competencies, even if you are the most socially successful person in the world.

However once in a while everyone needs to feel the air of his own environment and his own kind of sense of humor and entertainment. This is what The Big Chill in Suwon crreated for me. A not- so -huge and not-so-small place with pool and darts and bar and couches is perfect. A friend behind the bar who recognizes me immediately after entering, repeating pattern of faces, even if I don't know them, makes me feel home. Home between individuals whoose communication code is the same. When they make the appointment, it's fixed. When they say a compliment, they don't expect too much out of it. And if I am upset I can have a drink at the bar... all so very Western. It's only a bar, you'd say. Yes, but it's my bar. It's my refuge. A place where my friends meet.

Location: Once in Suwon say to the taxi driver: Nammun. And later have a look.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Guinsa Temple Part 3

After short rest we headed on the routine. This was the time when I felt the power of writing a book about a country and it's people. Hyondok Sunim had brought us off the typical routine of bows and meditation but instead decided to show the space of work, whatever possible in that freezing cold Christmas Day. The sky was so blue on that day.

We were brought into the ladies work space. Like in CatholicChurch or any other traditional patriarchal system women take care for guys stuff, they make cloths, sew them, iron, wash, cook, whatever to deliver ready for the monks.

I was shown their work space where they prepare buddhist religious outfit. Several ladies where sitting in rather small room with the entrance straight from the cold. One of them was cutting pieces. Another one was steam ironing them so it would be easier to sew them. One of them was making trousers only, another one tops. It was visible that they like it. Their way of life, daily work routine. Among giggles and laughs they kept asking questions about our countries, religion, opinions. Every now and then they bursted with laugh after Sunim told stories on our difficult adjustment to the rythm of life in the temple.

An important holiday was approaching. For the celebration purposes, the entire Temple site had been decorated with lanterns which looked like chickens but supposed to be dragons. Temple itself is quite new and very nicely decorated in the mixture of patterns and fresquos with green, gold and red as dominant colors. People headed around us on their routine. Pilgrims arrived and departured. For them it is an equivalent of Lourdes or Fatima, or even Częstochowa. A pilgrimage place where quantities of people head for a moment of refreshment and try just to stop in their haste of life. Maybe pray for their children's successes, their lost love, maybe for better health?

What is strikingly common to see is the fact that Buddism as a religion is a female issue in Korea. There have been quantities of ajummas in a scope of age starting from 40 and up, crowded on narrow spaces and hardly any men present. Maybe 5 of them among hundreds of women? Common phenomenon for the whole world.

It reminds me of, what I thought was a nasty antifeministic comment at the time, words spoken by the local parish priest in Warsaw: "When a woman prays it's normal. A matter of fact. Her soul is emotional, tempts to mysticism. But when cold logic driven male brain prays it is precious. More valued than female prayer." I still remember how angry I was, but when I look at it, I must admit that it is so true. Men are stronger in driving for their goals, never blaim extra factors for their failures or successes and are hardly ever emotional. But this is what makes them successful, after all.

At the lunch time there was time for the  truth. Sleeping routine at the Temple was not for me. I cannot go to sleep at 8 pm for 2 hrs and later at 4:30 am for 2 hours. I was grey on my face and very very tired.

I will be back to Guinsa, Hyondok Sunim. Maybe I will be more tough?

The last part of the day was tea ceremony with a monk. He could not speak english, but I think he understood. He had driven our attention to the fact that Avatar movie had a lot of buddhist elements in it. My journalist self overcame a diplomat inside me when I asked:

- How is buddism related to Korean mindset and modern development? You said that everything is interconnected and hence we should be responsible for nature. But in this case why are Korean people so detached from it? Temple Sites are protected because it is cultural heritage, but if there is no cultural heritage but there is a mount which is home to rare species, it would be blown up with no hesitation? Centuries of buddhist belief did not leave a trace in Korean mindset?

Sunim, an ex journalist, responded:

- I am not smart enough to speak about politics.

Hmm. Indead. That was not a political question I think...

- But maybe he is? - and I show our host. The response from the monk in translation was:

- There are challenges in modern world, but you need to practise. If you practise it will be allright.
 If you practise it will be allright...

Perfect solution which every religion makes for a believer. But maybe there is something in it?

I must admit that the meditation in the small Dharma Hall brought me peace of mind which I had not experienced in more than a month before Christmas. Despite on the faith and religion, or lack of it, if you stop and ask yourself: Quo Vadis? Quo Vadis Humanae? Where do you go? Who are you? What are your dreams? What are your sins? What makes the sense of your life? it is more than beneficial. Guinsa Temple had given me that.

On the icy cold evening with snow crunching under our feet and millions of stars on the sky we headed home. There are no stars in Seoul. Lights of civilization had taken over too long ago.

Hyondok Sunim, I will be back one day.

Guinsa Temple, Christmas 2010

Sunday, 16 January 2011

"Romantic" City of Chuncheon Part 1

 - Ah, so you can't have coffee with me because you go to Chuncheon. Right. Make sure you take lots of cloths because it will be very cold. Have fun. - my good Russian friend stated philosophically. 

I never care much for weather forecast in Korea, because it is hardly reliable and because in winter supposed to be cold. Frost, snow and blue sky are what makes a good winter.

Sometimes it makes that winter too good. We met at 9 am on a very chilly Saturday morning and bought tickets to Chuncheon which is north-east from Seoul area. The bus was warm and comfortably brought us to the destination, however on the way we passed a lot of smaller and bigger places which the further we went the more they looked like some middle of nowhere. 

 More and more in the middle of nowhere...

After getting off the bus we headed to downtown area which for some reason is called Myeong-Dong. Taxi driver, very happy for the given weather conditions smiled at us and asks:

-  Juoyo? Cold?

-   Aju juoyo... after that Yukti says something I could not understand quite well. Taxi drivers have two different favorite sports here. If I go on taxi with a girl, they ask where we are from and they usually start from guessing that we are from USA.

-  Where are you from?
-  France. - says Yukti with a joking spark in her eyes – and she is from USA.

Our ajoshi seemed to be more than happy that I was from USA and Yukti was from France for the purpose of this short ride to the city center. Another favorite hobby they have is asking a man in the cab if I am his wife or not and if he is going to kiss me or not. This is at least as much as I understood once when I was with a guy on the cab in the evening. But this time I was with Yukti, my amazing Indian friend who always smiles and the hobby version was much less annoying.

Once in downtown we had seen that the center was called Myeong-Dong for a reason. It apparently attempted to be a copy of Myeong-Dong in Seoul even with Myeong-Dong shoes for a tourist who would go to this city for shoes.

Well, we got here for sightseeing, not for shoes. Myeong-Dong shoes can wait, they are available in Seoul. Or not? Maybe not? 

Soon after however we got to the street marked with a very nice chicken on it's pavement. It was Dalgalbi street. We wanted to eat at last and try something new.

One of the attractions in ''romantic city of Chuncheon” is the local food, Dalgalbi. It is chicken on the grill with cabbage and tok – rice cake. However every restaurant was so full that we thought it must be some festival going on. The only empty one happened to be a place reserved for bigger groups. At last we just got to any given restaurant.

Dalgalbi was very nice but very spicy ( yes, I learnt to like spicy food!).
Even Yukti despite being a vegatarian had a bit of Dalgalbi. While we were assisted by a very helpful and elegant ajumma, some ajoshi hooked us asking Korean favorite question:

-  Where are you from?

After few introductions he admitted that he knows parts of India quite well and that he had been to Warsaw. We were very impressed by the gentleman's language skills, the conversation went on smoothly with him repeating every now and then who he is what had he done so far and how is he smart. And that he knows India and Poland and traveled in business there, of which he seemed to be very proud. He seemed to be proud of himself too. But wait, is this just Korean or is it simply male?

His daughter, a fresh lancet beauty, knew him obviously better than us and said:

-  Never mind him, he likes to know everything best.

Culturally shocking attitude here. I have seen some young boys carrying around their girls' handbags after they watched some soap operas, but I had not seen a daughter to be so equal in relations to any father here in Korea so far. Later we learnt that the man works for Hyundai and this is the reason why he knew our countries quite well before. As a modern Korean financial aristocrat seems to be excused from cultural norms and does not care for them much. He, his daughter and her boyfriend had seated for a sophisticated Dalgalbi luncheon on my 1.

-   Look at these individuals over there. - said Yukti.

Meanwhile on my 3 I had a nice picture of guys with black uniforms, longer hair in pony tails, 3 out of whom looked apparently Japanese. They had something on their necks which looked like rosary with a small penis attached. My neighbors looked at us every now and then and I kept looking at them. One moment I was tempted too much and I asked for a photo permission. This is how I have a photo with this gentleman. Obviously I asked what this small penis meant.

- It is religious symbol for first son. First baby – ajumma politically corrected herself.
Was it a baby or was it a penis? I don't know yet. Nevertheless the individuals seemed to be just as interested in us as we had been in them. In the background crowd of people had been patiently waiting for their turn, others were eating and drinking, some were sitting normally, some on the heated floor. The Dalgalbi luncheon fiesta was at it's most! 

 Was it a baby or was it a penis? I don't know. Dalgalbi fiesta went on.

After lunch it was time to decide what to do. Sitting in Cold Stone we had studied a map. Our host whom I found on couchsurfing lived in the eastern part of the city, hence we decided to see what that area offered to us and cover the rest on Sunday.

Not for the first time it had been a real struggle to go out into -17 degrees outside. Blue sky was not helping much anymore. But, Dear Reader, it would be rather pathetic to end up eating only local food, wouldn't it?

Why -17 in Chuncheon? Time to answer this question now. It supposed to be my destination for Chusok, but hell, it wasn't. Don't ask me why, ask the sky. Part of it was weather.

-17 happens to be a number on the termometer outside of the window, and the red liquid inside does not wanna move any bit higher, no matter how hard I pray for that. Now I have time for travelling, so I need to stand merciless – 17.

Yes, but this is not an answer to the question, why was it my destination. Part of it is the city's size. It is small, compact, surrounded with the lakes, settled among mountains rising straight from the water, it is a misty resemblance of Norway to unfamiliar ones. Another reason is that they had pictured South Korean most famous drama here, Winter Sonata. I have not seen any piece of it, but I was curious which surroundings and views Koreans would consider especially good for a romance scenery. 

Therefore we headed to the famous Soyang Dam by the local bus. The ride had taken us very high above the water level. Sceneries were absolutely beautiful. Slightly blue mountains covered here and there with snow and the steel blue lake far down below us which water had not been frozen yet and a blue sky. Absolutely astonishing. 

 Steel blue waters of the lake, blue sky and freezing wind. Winter Sonata.

If it only wasn't so windy! Our ''romantic trip” to Winter Sonata site had started more than chilly and it was my very self who had done this to us. Apparently I have some masochistic traits.
The wind had taken away all our warmth. Resourceful Korean overcommercialized capitalists whom I curse so often this time had been so resourceful and placed a building on top of the dam. It was reasonably warm in there.

After visiting the dam we decided to see the Museum in Chuncheon, but as a nice lady in the tourist info said, it was closed as of today. Therefore we headed to the Ethiopian War Memorial.

-Yuk shi closed. - said the watchdog downstairs with apparent attempt to shut the door in front of our faces.

-  But it is 5:55 – said Yukti, who is more than resourceful when needed.
This was how we made it inside the memorial for the Ethiopian war efforts which also shows a lot of culture. Items presented inside are really taken from Ethiopia or inspired by it's ancient culture remembering King Salomon and Queen Saba. The fresquos on the roofs are worth a glympse. They feature Ethiopian early churches from 3rd and 4th Century A.D. and the daily life of the villagers. Some everyday usage items and other artifacts are on display. It was the quickest sightseeing in my life, in 10' we were done with the Memorial Hall.

It was dark. Temperature fell to 23 in the negative. Hardly ever I could feel my skin being slowly frozen, despite my thickest possible outfit. It happens when it is below -20. 
 Happy masochist who is the owner of this blog.

Nolens volens we went for the Ethiopian Espresso since we were next to this place. Inside the coffee house I had seen many artifacts taken from Africa which were very real, neither of them had been made in China.

We sat by the window slowly defreezing ourselves. We both knew it was enough for today. Last issue to solve was to find our host from couchsurfing. Before that however we enjoyed taste of real African coffee which I know so well. It won't be modest to admit it, but Ethiopian coffee is welcome on my table ever since I know Krzysztof, a fellow traveller, who married a girl from Ethiopia. Twice a year or so he arrives with huge quantities of coffee in Warsaw, some of which gets safely delivered to my address. 

 Sometimes we were only silent...

Among the aroma of the seeds we enjoyed conversation about common female topics, at moments only sitting quietly. Outside of the window moon reflected in the iced water which even from inside seemed to crunch and whisper. What did it want to tell...?

We were on the way out when the owner took a chance to explain us the history of his coffee house. A word ''book” worked magic again. Jung Dae Cha is a second generation of owners who manages this coffee business. He says that it is the oldest coffee house in the entire South Korea. It started as soon as the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie visited Chuncheon in 1968 and had put his tent in the very spot where the coffee house is. The Memorial was opened to keep the memory of Ethiopian troops who participated bravely in the bloody times of Korean Civil War.

One hour later we finally reached the destination. Our host welcomed us with his warm house. Himself being very sick made this effort despite of any circumstances because commitment to a once given word matters. We spent the evening having interesting conversation about ancient medicine and Judaic belief.

Two hours later Yukti was sleeping and I was laying in total darkness wondering what the next day might bring...

To be continued...
Chuncheon, 15th January 2011

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Korea...Poland, some comparisons

Today "International" Committee for Aviation Crash Investigation (MAK in Russian) with general Anodina on it's lead had published "report" on Smolensk crash which occured on April 10th near Smolensk in Russia. In this catastrophe the President of Poland with his wife and 94 other leaders, congressmen, intellectuals together with whole crew were died.

Initially it supposed to be a turning point in Polish-Russian relations. Two days before "Katyn" was allowed to be shown only on Russia Today which is an english language TV station with popularity not exceeding 2% of the society. After the crash "breakthrough" step allowed a movie to be shown on other Russian TV stations.

In Poland a stream of dezinformation, different opinions, attitudes followed with PM blind belief in new modern Russia which will stand up to the call of modern western investigation with solid and transparent standards in it's base.

So we had been waiting for the outcome and as predicted MAK accused the Air Force Chief general Blasik for being drunk and for shouting on pilots in the cocpit.

In the meanwhile Dmitrij Medvedev, president of Russia visited Poland. Journalists were covering this visit emphasising with genuine pride how secured is this visit, how many choppers, secret service agents and panzer cars are there so noone would know in which of them president Medvedev really is.

It is difficult to reach bigger contrast. Back in Smolensk there was just one Secret Service agent without any gun covering security of the ambassador Bahr more than the president of Poland, airport, airfield remembering of sheep-run more than of modern sophisticated airport. That all surrounded by woods and city's dumpster mount and a barrack which certainly would use some renovation pretending to be control tower. In that "control tower" there were 3 guys all of whom had never been taken for interrogation by Polish prosecutors.
If I was told that these are the conditions offered for a visit of a foreign head of the state, several years ago I would not believe.
This resemble some long term submissive prejudice residing in brains of old generation in power in Poland. Generation in media and in politics. They consider such circumstances as normal and a matter of fact because Russia is bigger and their president deserves better treatment. I can imagine what would Russian media say if we told president Medvedev to land on a sheep-run.

Do I suspect a foul play? Yes I do, at least in a way the "investigation" is being done. Pieces of the aircraft are still to be found near the site. The wreckage was not even covered with anything and money from bank accounts of the victims had been stolen using their bank cards, this is how well the site was secured.

Was it an assasination? Who knows. I personally favor carelessness of the "control tower". What if really drunken guys were sitting there and reacted too slowly? But on the contrary I must admit that the control tower leader Plusin suggested to redirect the flight into the spare airport. From the transcript of the control tower talks at some point he says "Fuck, for now they insist to bring the plane down". Who is "they"? This should be clearly stated in the MAK report and it isn't. MAK report totally ignores the control tower transcript of all communication, not only with the plane but also with other people on the phone and those present in the building.

Also straight after the catastrophe my blog had been viewed by a very weird Moscow based business in the control of internet activity, market research. They are apparently not interested in Korean issues because they stopped watching my blog just after I stopped mentioning the crash.

How is it all related to Korea? I remember Cheonan sinking this year. Immediate international investigation, rushed legal proceedings and quick and clear results which happen to be accurate. If South Korean Air Force One crashed on the Russian territory, the investigation would be immediately Korean. They would not even ask anyone if they can or cannot. They would do, what they usually do, act first and worry later.

This is why I love Korea. One of the many many reasons.


On the side. Crashes like that are very popular movie topics, also it is possible to get Pulitzer if a journalist touches such topic. But up to date noone is asking any inconvenient questions about how the MAK investigation was done.

Meanwhile president Medvedev walks on the red carpet in Warsaw. He will probably eat cavior in the presidential palace and smile to a few photos.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Guinsa Temple Part 2

After the dinner we were located in the pilgrims praying room in one of the floors in the main Dharma Hall building Our sunim had brought cloths for praying and walking around the complex, so those of us who did not feel warm enough, had put them on. Well, in the Temple or not, I do not fancy wearing something which covers me too much so I had the pants on only for the night.

The hall was full of women singing louder or more quiet main mantra of the Temple...or sutra...Byang Seum Bo Sal and so on like this on and on and on again. They were sitting in the lotus position or not, but as 2, 3 day pilgrims some of them, especially children, had given up on their buddhist duties and gradually fell asleep. To be frank, I made it up to 1 am on the prayers. Later we tried to get a nap, just like other ladies around us.

At 03:20 sharp we were told to appear in front of Dharma Hall. As we went out of our hot sleeping/praying place I saw millions of stars. Total silence surrounded us. Tree tops glisened in the misty light of stars and snow crunched under our feet. We followed monks inside the the middle of the night voices of the lama started...what did they sing, what did they speak that I don't know yet. Not for me to comprehend with my limited Korean skills. Not yet.

After the celebration we went out. Our name cards remained inside on our seats. Someone prayed for us. Maybe for fortune or maybe for wisdom. Insight into the right steps. Who knows.

It was then under the stars of the provinsial Korean sky when I realised what I am actually doing. Why am I here and not on a couch in Warsaw. Why am I always on the go.

When I was a kid I read stories of a writer who created my favorite book character, so alive that I still can see how he looks like in front of my eyes. He was a young guy with special curiosity about the world. With his father and friends travelled across the globe to gather animals for Hagenbeck Zoo in Berlin. In one of the stories he goes to Tibet via Himalaya to rescue a friend and in search of gold. Snowblinded ends up in Lhasa Temple where lamas in the buddhist-lamaistic shrine take care of him. Soon after he joins their daily routine out of curiosity....

And it was me Tomek or Tomek me who joined lamas on the morning walk with their praying rosaries in hands. It was me Tomek or Tomek me who walked around the temple. The bells and the gongs made it even more magic. Was it Tibet 100 years ago or was it Guinsa in 21st century? I no longer knew. I knew that I was born to do just the same. Travel. Experience. Gather reality around me and share it with people. If I ever cried with relief it was then.

In an hour we were back in our hot sleeping place. Ladies in trans did not disturb me any longer. I have regained my curiosity of who they are and why they do what they do.

I have regained curiosity of what they do and why they do it...

Breakfast had given an answer to my questions regarding sunim. She shared the story of her life with us at that time. Used to be a tv and radio journalist in her previous life and a catholic converted into a buddhist at some point in her path. Found her sense and the meaning in serving the community. She may wear grey jacket and modest uniform but her energy of a reporter is still there. Once we have it we have it forever. That was the reason why I felt connection and why I knew instantly we would stay in touch.

To be continued....

Thursday, 6 January 2011

DMZ Lotte World

I did not do a single one productive thing for the whole day so at least I decided to write this entry. South Korean overdone consumerism has always driven me a little bit nuts. Especially that it is very homogenous consumerism and that I am a part of it each time I go to Starbucks. Each time I go anywhere else. Or each time I just go out of my industrialized prison camp at Ajou.

The place where it is especially felt is DMZ - Demilitarized Zone. I have written a bit about this one here or there. But this time it is really an unforgettable advert.
 photo by Justinas Simanavici

''Thirsty? Try a DMZ water, fresh from the purity of intact land", says an advert of one of the brands which apparently found the way how to earn cash on the lasting Korean conflict. Crowds of tourists dragged by curiosity each year come to learn something about the situation in the penninsula. Mistery of last hermit non globalized country in the world is what brings them here. They want to feel that, experience that, how does it taste to be in clear and present danger.

South Korean soldier stands still protecting tourists from North Koreans...propaganda? Photo by Nathan Price
Typical program of the tour to DMZ is to see Panmunjom where Joint Security Area is located, watch North and South Korean soldiers who stand like salt statues half starring at each other. After that one is taken into a very well equipped tunnel which, as US soldiers in the role of guides say, had been digged for the purpose of infiltration. After portion of movies showing hope for reunification one is taken to a souvenir shop. Well, souvenir shop sells a tourist what reminds him about a visit to any tourist attraction later. But is it really a good idea?

Good or not, organizers will not let you get lost, they made sure to indicate which way is North Korea and which way is the toilet ( very needed sometimes ) and which way you may go to buy a souvenir T-shirt after you defected successfully.

photo by Nathan Price
Cheap souvenirs, cups, magnets, t-shirts and gadjets of all sorts with DMZ written on it contrast very sharply with dangerous communist buildings on the other side and soldiers ready to fire a gun in a blink of an eye.

There are even better things. A plastic worm just next to Korean warfare reminds you that it is only a tourist trip. When you are bored with all that talking about conflict, reunification, etc, you may also drop by amusement park nearby. And when you are thirsty, drink DMZ water.

 photo by Justinas Simanavici

This all represents the reality of two different countries of both sides. After all, South Korea is a capitalistic democracy and has right to do cash on anything it wants. But it poses a question, what happens to DMZ if ever it stops being the most hostile border in the world? Will it be changed into a National Park because it has intact ecosystem, or will be changed into another land of skyscrappers and Starbucks? That is the question.

Thanks to Justinas Simanavici and Nathan Price for these photos above.
You can visit Nathan's blog here:, it is full of satiric eye comments, some of them sharply described impressions from DMZ

Monday, 3 January 2011

Reading on: The Koreans

Michael Breen is an author I recommend for decent insight into contemporary Korean affairs.

"The Koreans. Who they are, what they want, where their future lies" is a book that had been published several times already and gives a brief and light encounter into Koreas mindset and sketches history. This really helps in understanding what makes a present day Korean.

However I would argue that Breen is wrong in several opinions he forms in the book. In the chapter titled "Two ways to be Korean" he states leaving safe rhethoric question mark, that Koreans could have prevented their division. There were too many leaders with far too many opinions and ideas.

Domestic freedom movement inclueded moderate nationalists who, similarly to Poland during positivism, decided to develop educated elites to be able to take over later on. This did not really succeed, mostly because the outbreak of war with China changed the course previously imposed by Japanese governor Satamoto. Satamoto gave room for limited Korean activities in terms of language and culture, decided to establish Korean press, the oldest of which, Chosun Ilbo, had just celebrated it's 90th anniversary last year.

In such circumstances moderate independence movement was created and had been growing. Until the outbreak of 2nd World War in the Far East, when Japanese authorities had shown the most horryfying face not just to the Koreans but also to other nations in Asia. All previously allowed activities had been banned. Development forced by Japanese war machine created as well many opportunities of jobs which had tempting wages. During that time most of the Independence Movement leaders lost credibility as they either collaborated or were broken by merciless investigations. Those who would later create modern Korean states were born abroad or returned from exile: Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee, who is described in one of the previous posts. Syngman Rhee for sure holds responsibility for rival attitude to his political counterparts but so would be anyone holding his position.

Modern Iraqis and Kurdish face the same problem, they have obviously too many voices and too many leaders. I will use this example as parallel. Although they have too many leaders, they depend on foreign stronger powers in as to who actually would hold the position of the president. Initially the first leader was Allawi, the closest friend of USA, however maybe not the most popular among Iraqis themselves, but accepted by foreign powers.

It was the same situation in Korea. Foreign powers decided to play for a piece of cake. Literally Soviet Russia decided to establish communism on the Korean penninsula and USA had secured the Southern part up to 38th parallel. But they designated Syngman Rhee as a first leader of Korea simply because he spent there most of his life and they knew him. They had no idea about any other leaders even if they would be better for the country. At second in a game between two ideologies there was no room for unified leadership. I contradict Michael Breen on his argument. My answer is no, they could not have prevented their own division. And rightly so, at least citizens of the South can strive for building their own future with increasing citizens participation.

On side from the main argument I must admit that however stupid and short sighted may US foreign policy be, bravery of her field troops saved a lot of dreams in the world and had stopped numerous genocides up till now. Unjustified and non-needed action in Iraq had changed American course for many years and caused her withdrawal from president Wilson's commitment, that every nation has right to self representation and democratic development.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Multi-culti Ansan City other words just cool story.

The plan was to go to Oido just because there supposed to be a seaside over there.
But as I was at Sadang Station in Seoul, subway was heading for Ansan and the plan got naturally amended on the spot. Destination Ansan.

What is interesting in Ansan? People say that birdwatching is possible. Somewhere around the city scholars from SNU had even made a documentary about night birds, like owl. The documentary was shown on BBC a year ago.

Just as I got off at Ansan Station I immediately got involved into my favorite one: peoplewatching. Indeed spectrum of cultures and different faces is enormous. Languages spoken differ among mongolian, vietnamese, indonesian and others. many different faces

All of them starred at me top-down screening with curiosity or some dirty thoughts in case of male. Indeed a European dressed in red hiking set is a rare view over there. These immigrant inhabitants of the city are not the richest obviously. Their skin is not radiant, eyes are tired. Some of them try to rest under thick blankets while trading something.

 ...they are tired

I didn't quit hopes to find that birdwatching site and was wondering among the streets until in some park I heard so common sound:

-Natasha! Natasha! Kuda Ty? Natasha, where are you? - some people looking like Asians were calling someone.

- Izvinite, Wy govorite pa angliyskiy? Do you speak english?
-Niet, ne horosho. Sorry, no.
- Mnie nada posmotriet' ptitsy, Wy znaete gde ya mogu naiti ptitsnyj rezervat? I want to find some birds for birdwatching, do you know where is it possible?
- I am sorry no. Wy gavarite po russkiy otschen' hortosho, Wy otkuda? Kakaya u Was yest kamyera? - a gentleman asked me about my camera, as apparently he was a photo freak as well. Also said that I speak russian well. I don't but nevertheless it was already another time my russian skills where very useful in Korea.

- Sony Alpha 100, eto gavno yest - I critisized my camera in non exactly most classy russian expression.
-Potshemu gavno? Moshna dyelat horosho. It's not that bad after all.- replied my new friend.

Eventually I learned that the gentleman was from Tashkent in Uzbekistan working in Korea. He kept asking where was I from.

- Ya iz Polshy. I come from Poland. - said I.
 ...cyrylic and hangul, happened every 500m

- Ach z Polski, w Uzbekistanie moim szefem był Polak. Back in Uzbekistan my boss was Polish.. We are both Koreans born there during Stalin times. Many Polish were also dragged by Stalin and this is how I learnt your language a little bit.

At this point I quit attempts to find birds and instead enjoyed people. Ended up having Polish-Korean-Uzbekh dinner and after I headed home.I must admit that I did not expect finding a Polish speaking Korean from Uzbekistan somewhere in Ansan which is not the biggest city at all.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Guinsa Temple Part 1

This Christmas happened to be spent at Guinsa Temple, where I decided to go in the very aim to perform perpetual state of motion, hence go. 

When 3 people travel, their personalities differ and they have to compose a society in it's mini scope for a given number of days or hours. It is a perfect school of tolerance and friendship. 3 of us, Polish, German... and not Russian ( like would be in that joke from past) but Lithuanian on the go. Louisa, not the fastest person in the world, but one of the smartest, Svajune, haste on going and punctual, and me, rather quiet on the journey, prepared trekker, and taking a lot of brain shortcuts which can have consequences at times. And it had during our preparations when I didn't tell Svajune beforehand that we are actually supposed to be ready for survival in terms of dressing and equipment. But, nevertheless Svajune is tough and made it in her own outfit. And even made a profit out of it, but let the story go as it goes...

We got off the bus in Korean equivalent of the middle of nowhere. Something simmilar Wild Wild West city in US countryside where both high tech and total bronze age meets in one spot. The bus ticket booth being both the kiosk for whatever needed with the ajoshi inside who looked at us like on the aliens. Prepared to speak my limited Korean I asked: Guinsa odiye isoyo. He looked at me again with bored sight of a man who had seen so many people and faces that I don't matter at all and shown the direction up and right.

Darkness around and reflections of street lights sparkling on the icy pavement up. By that time I got questions if we are at the right place and if we shouldn't go back to the bigger city and remarks that adventures in negative temperatures are not the best solution. Ignored them all: - Go. - said I. And headed upwards in the night full of stars.

I wish it was a longer walk. Surprisingly close I saw the complex of traditional roofs and new we are at the place. Svajune entered the office of the temple to ask... for two nights. Yes. Two nights.

An A4 size modest piece of paper at the door said in printed capitals: "For english speaking service please ask inside". In a moment cheering face of Svajune appeared back and said to us: - Wait 5 minutes
and an english speaking person will come to us.

It was a first time to get off my trekking shoes and not the last one. Inside there was a counter behind which I saw something like a combination of a theater closet and an office, just like a night watch would have his computer for whatever job. We waited on a heated floor.

- Welcome to Guinsa Temple! - a cry of energy greeted us from the right- I am Hyondok Synim and I shall be your guide from now on. Let's do the formalities.

We went through all sorts of questions from where we were and how we got there. Svajune brought her attention to Lithuania... - There was a man here, Justas, helped to make kimchi. He was from Lithuania too. Somehow I could not imagine my decadente friend Justinas making kimchi with ajummas, but an image of him with a cigar between his teeth and a blink above the pot of kimchi persecuted me in my brain and I bursted with laugh. Girls too. Mind reading?

Our nun was 50, fluent english speaker, with a height of mine and dark hair put in a tight not on the neck. Dark grey uniform, dark grey long coat and she would be alike thousand others if not for this amazing energy inside her which was glowing around the person. The way she moved and talked. The way she looked.

- Merry Christmas. Please feel welcome at our Temple and enjoy pace of time with us. There is only one God and only one good. Baby Jesus was born today and I want you to feel the athmosphere of Christmas even
when you are at buddist temple. - that came after asking us about religion. However tensed and complicated is my relation with God I don't deny Him so I admitted to be Roman Catholic. Not  for the first time I was wondering what story does "our" Hyondok Sunim carry on through her life. The  very moment I met her I knew she was not an usual person.

- You are very lucky. You arrived during the preparations for Buddha anniversary. There is also an ongoing month meditation going in our monastery, some of these people I will show you because of your book.
We followed her to the Dharma Hall passing all the impressive buildings. All of them full of concrete and Joson dynasty style assemblies in it's final touch. "Is Korean architecture really that homogenous and it does not differ from the corner to the corner?" again question in my brain. The answer to this question is one of the main purposes of my stay in Korea.

Nun brought us to the cafeteria looking like any other cafeteria. Full of women with children, and only 5 men. Gradually it went empty and we stayed alone. This is when she brought some friends with her. A young
one, and old one and a middle one. She put the cake in the middle and said. - You were brave during the meal (it was adressed to Louisa) so you deserve something sweet now. My young friend here has her
birthday. This is her mother. And this is my other friend - said she indicating at the old small lady with white hair. So silver that she must have been 90 by that time. Peace in her smiling eyes told that she has been through so much that she already aquired this absolute tolerance and acceptance for all phenomena in human beings. We went on chatting and asking questions. Now I think that the old lady was a guide for the young one in spiritual development. Her presence had not been merely of social manner.

To be continued...

Practical information: bus to Guinsa goes from Dong Seoul terminal every hour or so.
Once in temple you aren't supposed to leave any food you are given.

Enjoy :)