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28 Mar 2009

A short trip down south – It feels like it’s been a really long time since I’ve written anything here, probably because it has. Over two weeks now, as a matter of fact. Rest assured that I have been suitably busy during that time—no need to go into great detail. Suffice it to say that I did manage to reach all my mid-month deadlines, and then managed to catch up on everything else in the span of less than a week.

“Sometimes I think that I would like to spend a trip just relaxing and not doing anything strenuous, but then when we try that we get restless.”

One of the reasons I needed to catch up so quickly was that Hyunjin and I had planned a trip for last weekend. You may remember that we had an anniversary recently, but because of my busy schedule we decided to postpone the celebration until after my mid-month deadlines, and that meant last weekend.

Normally, this would be the sort of thing for which I would put together an Imagery gallery, but I am so far behind on photos (literally years behind) that I’m not even going to think about that right now. Instead I’ll write a bit about our adventures over the three-day trip. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything not for a deadline, so it will be a nice change of pace.

Our trip began on Friday morning. I don’t have class on Friday, and Hyunjin was able to reconfigure her schedule so she had the day off, and that gave us a three-day weekend. We left a little bit later than we had originally planned, mainly because I was wiped out from catching up on all of my work, and I didn’t feel like getting up early just to hit the road for a few hours. This also dictated where we went. Hyunjin’s original plan was to start with Seonun Mountain (and Seonun Temple) down in north Jeolla Province and then head further south for more adventure. I was always a bit fuzzy on what exactly this entailed, but on Thursday night when Hyunjin told me we should get up at around six o’clock in the morning, she must have seen the look of despair on my face. “OK,” she said. “We’ll go to a spa on the first day and then hit the temple and mountain on Saturday.”

The spa was Deoksan Spa Castle, which is on the way to Seonun Mountain. Thus we wouldn’t be getting as far south as originally planned, but I really just wanted to rest. We left home sometime around ten or eleven and stopped for lunch along the way. We took our time, and by the time we reached Deoksan and the Spa Castle, it was around four o’clock. We checked into the Windsor Hotel, which is not nearly as fancy as it sounds. It turned out to be a love motel, but aside from the weird lighting in the hallways and the pungent aroma of infidelity in the air (or maybe that was just my imagination), it’s actually quite a nice place. For one, it’s clean, and that’s saying something here. You don’t know how many times we’ve walked into a motel (yeogwan) room to find someone else’s hair on the pillow. In fact, when my parents came to visit last summer, we stayed in what turned out to be a downright filthy place during our travels. I think that was probably the moment when I realized how filthy the cheap accommodations are here.

The Windsor, though, was very sanitary. The sheets and pillow cases had been washed, and the room, though small, was well appointed. There was a large, flat-panel HD TV, a small sitting area with a sofa and coffee table, and a jacuzzi in the bathroom. Probably the nicest cheap place I’ve ever stayed in here. There are plenty of expensive hotels, of course, and those are much nicer, but the problem with Korea is that there is no mid-range accommodation, especially once you get out of Seoul. Anyway, that’s a rant for another day, and not something that’s going to change any time soon, so no sense carrying on about it.

The Spa Castle was open until nine o’clock in the evening, and there was a 40% discount if you bought your tickets after five o’clock. Since it was just about five o’clock by the time we got there, that’s what we decided to do. When you buy your tickets, they give you a “spakey” (i.e., “spa key”), which is the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife for the spa. It opens up your shoe locker (you take off your shoes at the entrance and put them in a tiny locker), opens up your locker in the changing room, and acts as a sort of debit card within the spa itself. You wear it on your wrist like a watch, and it turned out to be quite handy. I only realized in retrospect that having a debit card on your wrist might not be the best thing in the world.

Once we actually got inside, we were a bit disappointed by the Spa Castle. For one, it’s not a castle. It is a spa, though, I guess. That is, there is a large indoor pool area shaped like a Mickey Mouse head that has various water massage areas. If you’re not sure what I mean by “water massage areas,” you basically get to choose which part of your body you would like to have assaulted by extremely powerful jets of water. There are also some jacuzzi-type areas, and we probably hung out more in those than in the water jet torture devices.

But the indoor area isn’t all that big, and we quickly got bored with it. Despite the fact that it was March and still fairly cold, we decided to go outside. The outside area is bigger, with a number of hot tubs scattered here and there, and a few water slides. We were surprised to get up to the slides and discover that you had to pay for each ride you took. They charged enough for the tickets in the first place (of course, we didn’t pay full price), so you would think they would let people ride the slides for free—especially since almost no one was there.

There is another area with a wave pool and a “river” that you can ride on a tube. Of course, you have to have a life jacket to enter those areas and you had to pay to rent life jackets. It wasn’t that much to rent them, but we were so annoyed that we had to pay extra that we just skipped that area entirely.

There was one thing that we did decide to pay extra for, and it’s really the only thing worth mentioning at the Spa Castle. One of the outdoor hot tubs was filled with what are called “doctor fish” (Garra rufa). They originally lived in outdoor Turkish spas, where they would come along and eat all the dead skin off the people who sat in the water. Now, apparently they are all the rage around the world, including Korea. For some reason, Hyunjin wanted to try out the doctor fish, so we paid for thirty minutes to sit in a pool and become food for the fishes.

I sat down on a ledge and put only my legs in the pool at first, but Hyunjin sat down in the water up to her neck. Before long, scores of tiny little fishes swam over and started nibbling away at us. It doesn’t hurt, but it tickles like crazy. I think it would be a pretty effective torture method, actually. After about ten minutes I got somewhat used to the nibbling and decided to submerge myself up to my neck. It wasn’t too bad, but for some reason they kept trying to nibble on my nipples, and I’m just not really into fish nibbling on my nipples. I eventually worked out a mummy-like pose that allowed me to cover the sensitive areas but still let the fish nibble away at the other parts of my body.

Neither of us had a watch, so we didn’t know how much time had passed, but I kept thinking that thirty minutes had to have passed. But it didn’t, and we sat there and tried not to think about the fish that were eating us. To be fair, Hyunjin suffered more than I did—for some reason, the fish seemed to like her better. Not only were there more fish around her, but the fish that were around her were bigger. I guess I don’t have as much dead skin. I didn’t really notice much of a difference after we finally got out, but Hyunjin says that her shins used to be rather rough, but now they are nice and smooth.

Like I said above, the doctor fish are really the only thing worth mentioning about the spa. Suffice it to say that, even though we had until nine o’clock, it was just before eight o’clock before we decided that we were going to die of boredom if we stayed any longer. The idea of a spa sounded nice back in Seoul, and I suppose it might have been nice if everything hadn’t cost extra, but we’re not really the “sit around and do nothing” type.

The next day, Saturday, was much more interesting. We got up in the morning and got back on the road, and by lunchtime we had reached the bottom of Seonun Mountain. We had lunch at a restaurant there and then made our way up to Seonun Temple. Seonun Temple is famous for its camellia flowers (small, bright red flowers with yellow centers), which bloom around the end of March. Some of them had indeed started blooming, but Hyunjin noted that the leaves of the trees were so thick and green that you wouldn’t be able to see the flowers from any distance anyway. Apparently she had read somewhere that the hills behind the temple were “ablaze in red flowers” at this time of year, and she was disappointed to see that this was not in fact the case.

Up until that point, our trip had been a little bit on the disappointing side, but things turned around when we decided to climb up Seonun Mountain. I had been to the temple before, as had Hyunjin, but neither of us had climbed the mountain. Well, I can say that it was definitely worth the hike. A lot of mountains in Korea are granite, and their round, smooth rock faces are very picturesque. Seonun Mountain, though, is not granite. I don’t know what type of rock it is, but it is much softer than granite, and all exposed outcroppings have been pitted and carved into sharp ridges by the weather. It reminds me a lot of the rock at Mai Mountain, actually—there are some of the same shallow cave-like depressions scooped out of the rock faces.

One of the sights on the mountain is a large tunnel of about five or six meters cut straight through a rock face, possibly by running water. Another sight is Nakjodae, which is a sharp outcropping that juts out of the mountain like a ship’s prow. When we first saw it we thought it was huge, but as we drew closer we realized that it was not that big at all—it just looked huge because the lay of the land makes you think it is farther than it is. After seeing how small it was, I decided to climb it and have Hyunjin take a photo of me at the top. The trail climbs up at that point and Nakjodae juts out more or less on the level, so even though it rises maybe six or seven meters above the trail at its highest point, access isn’t too difficult. Once I got on it, though, I realized that it is a lot more treacherous than it looks from below—it was basically like trying to climb a saw blade at some points. At one point I had to take off my pack and coat in order to squeeze through a tight spot, and at the end (Mom, skip the rest of this paragraph) I had to scale a short span over a sheer drop that would have killed me had I fallen, although there were enough hand- and footholds that I never felt that I was in any real danger.

The most dangerous part, though, was probably when I reached the end of the face and pulled myself up onto the top of a flat section—and straight into a powerful wind that almost blew me off the mountain. But the view was amazing, even though the weather was overcast and threatening rain. I wasn’t able to take any photos, as I didn’t have the camera with me, but I don’t think any photo would have been able to capture the feeling of standing up there in that wind and looking down on the valley far, far below. It was also cool to watch people going by on the trail below and do double takes when they spotted me.

I would say that Seonun Mountain was probably the high point of our trip. I was a bit worried when we were looking around the temple, because I was really tired and I didn’t think I would have enough energy to climb the mountain, but once we got on the trail I was energized. Sometimes I think that I would like spend a trip just relaxing and not doing anything strenuous, but then when we try that we get restless—we’re not happy unless we’re doing something active. I don’t know how much longer that will last, but for now that’s the way we are.

Saturday evening and Sunday morning were spent in the nearby town of Gochang, where we checked out the old walled town. We got to see it lit up at night and then again early on Sunday morning, before the tour buses came. I had visited the walled town once before, a long time ago, but it was fun to walk the wall again. And that pretty much wrapped up our trip. We hit the road and made it back to Seoul without running into any real traffic, which was a pleasant surprise and a nice end to the trip.

I’ve got a bunch of other entries I want to get out, and hopefully I’ll be able to write a little more regularly from now on. I’d also like to catch up on some of those photos, but the backlog is a bit daunting. I think I might just pick a few trips we’ve made and declare photo bankruptcy on the rest, otherwise I might never catch up. At any rate, I really would like to have something new up here on a more regular basis (say, more than once a week). All I need now is some discipline.

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