Sunday, August 30, 2009

Korea Day 6 - The Birds

We were leaving Ulleungdo later in the day but first we wanted to take a tour around the island. We had tried to go on one the previous day but it was apparently run mostly in the morning. I say apparently since almost no one on the island spoke any English so there was a lot of pointing involved in any communication we had to do. The boat for the tour was fairly big with an inside area without any real chairs and an outside deck. I spent the whole time on the deck but it looked like there were a lot of Korean people just happy to hang out on the floor in the enclosed area. They sold some types of snacks on the ship which seemed to be less for people and more for the flock of seagulls that followed the boat. Maybe I had accidentally gotten on the seagull feeding cruise instead of the sightseeing one since that's all people seemed to be doing. I immediately disliked this since I was sure people were going to get pooped on by the birds. And sure enough after not too long people started getting hit. Even that wouldn't have been so bad had I not spent the whole time sure that sooner or later I was going to get hit by the birds as well. There were also some people taking pictures, though I think most of the people looked at the birds a hell of a lot more than they looked at the scenery.

One man though had a video camera on a tripod and seemed to be literally recording every second of the voyage around the island for what I believe must be his entry to the worst vacation movie ever contest. The island itself was very pretty basically being a few peaks covered in trees rising out of the water. There was also a smaller flat island off the coast which was some sort of nature preserve, though it didn't seem like much lived there. By far the most interesting thing to happen on the trip was what one guy kept trying to do to the birds. He would hold up a very small piece of food with one hand, and when a seagull would try to fly down and get it he would attempt to grab it with his free hand. The first few times this didn't work so well and I became convinced that he really couldn't do it. But finally he grabbed just at the right moment and snagged a bird right out of the air. He held it for a moment by its wings as the terrified bird squawked and tried to bite him. He held it up to show it proudly to the amazed crowd as a smiled happy with his victory over the bird. After a moment he threw it back where it continued to fly. Later in the trip he managed to do it again, and this time I was watching him and managed to get some pictures.

After we got off the boat I was mostly just grateful that the seagulls had missed me. We went back to the hotel to get our stuff and we couldn't find anyone else around. We looked for a while for someone to give the key to, we had already payed yesterday. We finally just left the key in the room and closed the door. We got on the boat back for the mainland and I don't know if it was just luck or what but I wasn't nearly as sick this time. When we got back we just went to stay in the same hotel as before. We were able to accomplish it this time without wrestling the old man. We went out and found a restaurant that actually had a picture menu for once. The problem was the food we both ordered was unbelievable spicy. That was compounded by the fact that the beer they had was terrible and they didn't seem to have any rice. We were both quite hungry so we basically just sat their for an hour and really slowly and painfully ate our way through it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Korea Day 5 - The Dokdo Defense Squad

We woke up pretty early to get to the boat. I was glad that we already had tickets since there were a ton of Korean people there by the time we arrived. They had us fill out some extra forms since I think we were the only foreigners on the boat. Ulleungdo it seems besides being a large squid catching port is the main stopping off point for people going to the even more remote island of Dokdo. Dokdo an uninhabitable spit of land somewhere in between Korea and Japan has been the focus of intense resentment between Korea and Japan. Both sides claim ancient connection to the island based on old maps showing that it existed, no one really ever lived there of course. When the Japanese invaded and took over Korea one of the first things they did was to have the Vichy Korean government sign over the island to Japan. At the height of World War II Japan controlled basically all of South East Asia, including places like China, Korea. While Germany in the years following the second world war made great efforts to apologies for and recognize the horrific crimes committed the Japanese basically adopted the attitude of, "well shit happened." Japanese school textbooks routinely downplay some of the more horrific acts committed by the Japanese, and they did some really horrible stuff, and leaders of Japan have refused to stop paying respects at a memorial for the Japanese war dead the includes the remains of several high level war criminals.

The net result of all this is that countries like China and Korea still feel a lasting bitterness toward the Japanese. I've been asked by Chinese people if Americans still dislike the Japanese because of World War II, but I think when you drop a couple of nuclear weapons on a country it makes it easier to forgive. After the end of World War II Dokdo was though by American commanders who were basically running both countries to be Japanese then Korean until finally the US just decided that this was not really their fight and backed off. There was an incident where an America military training exercise near Dokdo accidentally killed several Korea fishermen, Dokdo is near some valuable fishing grounds another source of tension, and MacArthur had a monument to them built on Dokdo as an apology. Some unknown Japanese people later destroyed the monument prompting a build up of military ships in the area. Dokdo has been run by Korea for the last number of years, North Korea has even come out and supported the Souths claim to the island against the Japanese. Until a few years ago tourist could not actually go to the island but recently the government has started allowing people to visit the island. Actually they go on a several hour boat ride for just the chance to land on the island as the weather is sometimes too bad for the boats to dock.

While the Japanese consider this one of a number of small territorial disputes it has with its neighbors the Koreans consider it a matter of national pride. I heard several old school teachers and retired writers talk about defending Dokdo to the death. The ferry we were on was almost entirely comprised of retirees most of whom were heading to Dokdo. A few of the more intrepid wondered if we were there for the same reason. The boat ride which was about three hours long on a hydrofoil made me quite sea sick. The waves weren't too high but the boat was constantly rocking side to side. Some of the old people managed to sleep though Ken who went to the bathroom said there were a lot of people in there throwing up as well. Some of the elderly even broke out the Soju and did shots despite it being before 10 in the morning. When we finally arrived I was mostly just glad I hadn't thrown up. The port at Ulleungdo was so hidden by rocks and the curve of the island it looked like some pirates retreat. The town its self, one of several small ones on the island, was basically one street that ran from the harbor toward the mountain at the heart of the small island. It was actually really lovely with the small town backed by a peak and fronted by a working squid fishing harbor.

We got off the boat and ignored a few people trying to sell us rooms. They were different though from some of the other people who bothered us as even they spoke no English. We walked up into the town a little realizing pretty quickly that hotels were not exactly well marked. As we were standing around figuring out what to do I saw a few people with bags following one guy up some steps near a house. I suggested that we follow them and they came to what seemed like a series of guest rooms nearby. We signaled to the owners that we wanted a room and after some hand gestures we arrived at a price. Our room was basically one little room with mats that spread out on the floor for us to sleep on. Apparently this is a very traditional style of room in Korea as in the old days only the floors would be heated and by sleeping near the floors you could stay warm. The book said that the system worked so well that there could be ice on the ceiling while people slept comfortably on the floor. After we had paid them they dissipated and we never really saw the owners for the rest of our time there. We went out to get some lunch at a nearby place there was no English or any pictures so we literally just pointed to something written on the wall that had an OK price. It came out pretty good and we set put to explore some of the island.

There was a patch cut out right next to the coast and we walked along it for some time. It was really quite beautiful with a lot of interesting rock formations. We passed several restaurants set up right along the coast for seafood. We finally made it around quite a while to where the patch started up a really big hill. It wasn't a long way but it was quite steep. At the top was a lighthouse that looked over some of the coast and another little town. There were a couple of younger Korean tourists with really fancy camera around their necks. I like my camera fine but the speed with which they were able to take pictures was impressive. Inside the lighthouse was a model of Dokdo which was about as close as we actually got. On the way back we met a young college teacher who spoke English and told us how he liked to travel the world. He had been to some interesting countries in central Asia. It was getting late so we decided to try to find a place for dinner. We had some problems since a few of the restaurants couldn't really deal with us just randomly pointing to things on the menu. Finally we found one that was happy to let us do what we wanted and again the food was pretty good. We ended the day by looking around for a place to use the internet as we needed to finalize plans for our DMZ tours. I wanted the full tour while Ken just wanted to main border area. We asked around for a while looking for an internet cafe, but it seemed the only one had gone out of business years ago. After a bit we stumbled into a pool hall with a computer in the corner and even though we used it for at least thirty minutes they wouldn't take any money from us. Even in this place were people spoke basically no English people were still really nice and helpful.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Korea Day 4 - The National Sport of Korea

The next morning we got up with the intention of going on a tour of the other big palace in Seoul before our train. We had decided the previous day to go to a little island that we just noticed on a map called Ulleungdo. The person at our hotel said he didn't think he had ever heard of a tourist going there which was recommendation enough. To get there we had to take a train to the city of Pohang and then get a boat. The boats only left pretty early in the morning so the plan was to take a train to Pohang at night then catch the boat the next morning. After being in China the ease at which the Korean train system worked was a huge relief. We were able to buy round trip tickets in advanced that even involved a stop in a third city. That right, I was actually able to buy a ticket for a city I was no physically in. Ah, the marvels of modern technology. In the morning though it was raining so we decided not to go on the tour since it would be all outside. Instead we just had lunch at some little place and then walked around a tourist street for a while. It was the sort of stuff you'd expect a lot of hand crafted things and nick knacks. There was one guy selling a flute like instrument which was fairly interesting but I wasn't able to find him later when I was thinking of buying it. We had been having problems with alarms as even though a phone would work OK the fact that we couldn't get a signal meant that our phones ran through all there power really quickly looking for one and would be out of power by the next morning when we needed it.

We went over to the mall we had been in the other day to try and find a portable alarm clock. It was a pretty big mall but we had a really hard time finding what we wanted. When we finally found someone selling them the prices were way too high and we didn't end up buying one. Since we were back in the place with the "e-Sports Stadium" we decided to see what they were up to this time. Unlike last time where the place was mostly empty besides the contestants and crew this time it was packed to the gills and standing room only. The difference was that unlike the previous day when they had been playing some shooter they were now playing Starcraft. Starcraft is basically the national sport of Korea. A computer game created by the US company Blizzard, also the makers of the huge in China World of Warcraft, Starcraft is a game where two players build little soldiers to control resources on a map and then crush the other player. It was a very popular game in the US when it came out too and I played for a number of years, but all that was about a decade ago. While it has essentially faded into obscurity in America Starcaft is still huge in Korea. I've seen videos of whole stadiums packed to watch two people play this game, and the really large crowd we saw was certainly a testimonial to that. I know the game somewhat but was not really able to follow it on the level they play it. There was also a team of announcers who I'm sure helped explain things but were yelling in excited Korea.

We couldn't stay too long as we had to make our train. The train station was much nicer and less crowded than any in China, remember that Seoul is as big a pretty much any Chinese city. The train was nice as were the seats and it never really got crowded. There was even a food car that sold a fairly good sandwich. The train was also a lot quieter as no one loudly listened to music and one train attendant even shushed me and Ken once. Oddly enough no one ever actually checked our tickets the whole time, though they're often only barely checked in China. When we got to Pohang we went down to near where the boat left from and walked around looking at hotels. It was past nine or ten so when we got to the reception of a lot of the hotels the people were sleeping behind the counter. There wasn't exactly a lot of English being spoken in this town but using the book to look up the word for beds helped. I didn't want to stay at the first place since they only had one bigger bed instead of two smaller ones and I don't really like sharing a bed that much. We tried a few other places that had a similar story until we came to the Rich Motel. We found a older Korean man behind the counter who showed us around. We asked about a room with two beds and he brought us to one which was actually a gorgeous room with an extra living room area and a computer. The price was too high though so we asked about a room with one bed. He had that also but it was still more than the other places. We were going to leave when he cut the price down to the same as the other places.

Figuring that we were here and the room was nice we said we'd take it. We went down to the front desk to pay and as we were just about to he cut the price on the room with the double beds again until it was only a little more expensive than the single bed. We agreed and paid. Ken though had left his backpack in the room with one bed and fearing that the door was locked wanted the guy to take us back there. Now we had been communicating all this time only by writing numbers down and using about three words of Korean so saying that we had forgotten a backpack was well beyond us. Ken tried to hit the number of the floor with the single room but the guy kept unpushing the button and telling us no. Finally it actually became something of a struggle with me and Ken trying to push the button while he held us off. I'll say this he may have been 80 and five foot nothing but he was really strong. We're both also laughing at this point as we've somehow gotten into a wrestling match with a Korean octogenarian. Finally I'm just able to push the button as we reach the floor and we get off only to discover that the room is unlocked and we can get the backpack. Finally realizing what we wanted he profusely apologizes and we go to the correct room. Before we went to bed that night we were flipping around the channels which besides containing a really odd porn channel, contains two channels of nothing but games of Starcraft. After watching for a few minutes I realize that one of the games is the one we watched earlier that day. So we weren't just watching professional video games we were watching the big leagues.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Korea Day 3 - Fun with Guns

The next morning, or more likely early afternoon, we went to a place near the hotel to get some breakfast. The food was the same sort of mash up with Kimchi that we had at other places. It was good though and the place we ate at was little more than a kitchen with about three tables in it. It actually seemed that most of the business was selling food out front to people who passed by but they also did meals. We took the subway down to the war museum, which is supposed to be a good one. Immediately the scene there seemed pretty strange as instead of mostly camera toting tourists it was mostly Korea teenyboppers. As we got closer we saw gigantic signs for some signer or group called the Mobius. It seemed that the big area out in front of the War Museum was going to be the host for a gigantic pop concert. I doubt there was any actually connection between this pop star and any war commemoration. It just seemed totally out of place to me like going down to the Vietnam War Memorial in DC and seeing a Britney Spears concert. There were already a lot of people there for what must have been an evening concert when we got there around noon and I even managed to get a sign. The crowd was about 90% female and all under the age of 16.

Outside the actually war memorial stuff included a lot of old planes and tanks, not too dissimilar from what we saw at the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City. As I was looking at a big plane that you could walk up and look at the cockpit of there band started rehearsing giving the whole place a wholly inappropriate sound track. Most of the other tourists there didn't seem to mind too much though just going about their business. There was a group of what looked like Korean Boy Scouts walking around. The artillery pieces they had all set up in a row were actually pretty impressive. We went inside the museum and got tickets. There was also another type of ticket available for some kids thing but we didn't know what that was about. Inside the museum was actually set up in a sort of confusing way so we had to walk around for a while before we found where the main tour started. While we were looking around we discovered that most of the lower floor of the museum had been turned into some gigantic play room for children. I actually wished I was four years old because it looked fantastic. They had an area where kids could put together toy train tracks, and a gigantic train ride around the middle of the room, actually it looked like the whole place was sponsored by Thomas the Tank Engine.

Around the other side of the room they had a moon bounce and a big slide. They also had this clear inflatable tube that kids could walk in and they get the whole thing to roll. The most interesting area though was two big pits filled with little colorful balls, sort of like the children's area in a McDonalds. But the two pits were connected by a conveyor belt that had to be cranked by hand and would raise the balls up until they would fall down a slide into the other side of the conveyor belt. The children would then use little buckets and shovels to start the process over again. I don't think I've ever seen a children's toy more suited for teaching children how to work on an assembly line. Now that's how you build GDP. There were a huge number of tiny flags over the whole thing also for some reason. It was just like the concert not exactly what you would expect to find in a war museum. The actual war museum part was pretty interesting. I'm not really a huge fan of museums but it had a series of videos which I always prefer. I actually knew quite a bit about the Korean War before going there so I didn't learn that much. The single most interesting thing was the picture of an old blind man the South Koreans had run into outside of Seoul when they liberated it. The battle lines in that area had gone back and forth so many times the man greeted the soldiers with flags for both the North and the South since he was so confused.

I knew that Korea is famous for being a place where video games are treated as a serious sport so we had asked one of the people at the hotel if he knew where we could go to watch some games. He gave us the name of a subway stop that came up right into a mall. The first odd thing about this mall was that there was a Mexican band playing outside for some reason. I don't know that much about musical tastes in Korea but if they're anything like China something with a lot of horns isn't exactly what they're looking for. We went into the mall and looked around for a little while with no success. Finally I noticed that there was something listed as an "e-Sports Stadium" on the top floor of an electronics store. We took a series of escalators up about eight floors to until we got there. There was a person sitting outside one of the doors and when we approached we were just allowed in. Inside was a TV studio with a big stage and a number of chairs. On the stage were two tables with five computers each with TV monitors in front of them showing exactly what each person was doing. There was also a big screen behind all of them showing a big version of the whole thing. They were playing a shooter that I didn't recognize but they're all pretty much the same anyways.

The teams would run around shooting each other eliminating players until whoever was left won. They would shout out suggestions or some such thing to each other while the game was going on also. The teams were actually very well organized with coaches sitting off to the sides in suits and even some team cheers. It was a pretty surreal experience to see it being filmed for TV. Me and Ken were at least filmed once as I think they don't get too many tourists at these things. The whole place was really fancy also with some top notch looking equipment. There were also what seemed to be judges standing behind the players. The most interesting team was an all girls team that wore matching high heeled shoes. They lost mostly but it was fun to watch. There was one guy in the audience who I hope was one of there boyfriends since he was yelling along with them on all the team chants and very excited. Even the other Korean people around him seemed to think he was a little nuts. You've got to respect any country though were playing a video game can be considered a career option. After the games were over, me and Ken went to a Korean BBQ place where they cook the meat in front of you with these turning spits. It was a little hard to figure out but our waiter was incredibly attentive and we had some Soju, a Korean liquor that it about 40 proof. It's not as strong as something like vodka but they drink it in shots so they end up drinking a lot of shots.