Friday, September 28, 2012

Love Motel Review

This is the review that will never make it into Trip Advisor. In fact, before I left on my holiday I was searching for reviews for hotels and guesthouses in Guri and couldn't find any. In hindsight this should have been my first warning sign. My second should have been when my son-in-law said it wasn't necessary to make reservations. All I needed to do was show up and pick out the Love Motel I liked best. And, of course, the biggest warning sign of all should have been the fact they were referred to as Love Motels.

The first thing I need to do is correct some information I gave you in a previous post, where I said the name of my motel was the Chanel Motel. As it turns out, the Chanel is actually the brothel next to the motel. The name of my establishment was Motel Gabbana. In case you ever decide to book a room in Guri, South Korea this would be an important distinction to make.

Sometimes in the evenings I would wait in the doorway for Rebekah and Anton to pick me up. What would be important to know about this is the doorway I would wait in was also the doorway to the brothel. If you went straight in and down the stairs, voila, you were in the brothel. A turn to the right would lead you into the motel. It did leave the impression there was a very close business connection between the two establishments. All I can say is never in my wildest imagination would I have believed it if you would have told me there would be a circumstance in my life that would find me standing in the doorway to a brothel in the early evening hours.

Now I will take you on a visual tour of my room. I am sorry I can't include smells with this photo essay, but if you can conjure up memories of a smoke-filled bar back in the days when smoking indoors was allowed, then double the intensity, you will get the idea. Here is my room. Note the window (the only window I might add) with a view onto the street, the security system (why bother with a dead bolt or chain?), and the decorative wallpaper (no extra charge for the stain).

When you have such beautiful pillows why bother covering them all the way up with a full pillow case? And waste not, want not. There is no sense throwing out perfectly good sheets just because they have a few cigarette burns in them.

The fancy handle on the door to the bathroom was its best feature.

It also had a shower that looked quite complicated with all those nozzles and settings, but in reality turned out to be very straightforward since the only thing that actually worked was the dangling spray attachment. The plumbing was rather interesting. The water from the tub/shower combo drained out of hole in the bottom of the tub and onto the bathroom floor. No worries there though, as they provided those lovely pink plastic sandals so you didn't fall and knock yourself out on the slippery floor. And, of course, there were the towels, which had the positive feature of making me thankful I am short every time I used them since they were the size of hand towels.

With so many spectacular features I know it is hard to believe this, but I'm not finished yet. There were multiple complimentary items that came with my room. Note the toothpaste in the bathroom, along with the mould behind the sink. Those drinks? They were all on the house. Hair care products were thoughtfully arranged in a basket, along with hairbrushes that had clearly been used by previous guests. Oh. And the goodie bag I was handed when I checked in. Sort of like kids get at a birthday party, only with adult contents.

Normally this motel would receive a 0 star rating. However, there are several additional things that I have had to take into consideration before giving it a final rating.

  1. The sheer awfulness of the place forced me out the door. Given the choice between being hopelessly lost in the streets of Guri, or sitting in that dismal room all day, getting lost suddenly didn't seem like that big of a deal. First star earned.
  2. I didn't have to worry about wandering into a sketchy area. I mean, how much worse could it get than a brothel next door? Two stars.
  3. The staff were extremely friendly. They didn't speak a word of English and I don't speak Korean, but somehow we made it work. They would chase me down the hall with clean towels and more drinks, smiling as they handed them over. There was one especially memorable time when, at 9:45 PM, there was frantic knocking at my door. At first I refused to open it. Then the phone started ringing, followed by more knocking. Remember, I had no chain or peep hole so I had no way of knowing who was on the other side of the door. I finally got tired of the knocking and shouting, opened the door, and was faced with the grinning cleaning lady handing me towels and drinks. Clearly this motel kept different hours than me. Friendliness counts for a lot. Three stars.
  4. I love to laugh. I really do. The absurdity of the whole situation still cracks me up. Bump to four stars.
  5. This motel had one feature that made it stand out more than any other. It happened to be located a ten minute walk from Rebekah, which was enough to shoot it up to a five star rating all on its own!

I'll close with this personal note I received from the CEO of the Motel Gabbana. Contact info is included just in case you ever need a place to stay in Guri, South Korea.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Farewell To Korea

Sorry for the gap in posts. Anton's parents arrived late Friday afternoon and we have been so busy being tourists that I haven't had time to sit down and write anything.

Friday was a slow day. Rebekah was at work and Anton had to head in to get his parents at the airport right after lunch. This turned out to be a good thing since I wasn't feeling the greatest. If anyone has suggestions for how to avoid catching a cold when traveling I would love to hear them! Since I spent the day mostly hanging out at the Hotel Ritz Friday's pictures are sparse. The random collage will have to do.

Glass pop bottles; these fish looked surprised!; English language learning signs in the Guri Park; the Korean equivalent of Indian fry bread

Saturday Rebekah woke up not feeling 100%, so she stayed home to rest while Anton, his parents and I went out exploring. (Maybe we aren't eating enough, and that is why each of us has had a sick day while I have been here.) First we walked around Guri so they could get a feel for the city where Rebekah and Anton live. Luba and Alexander liked the exercise stations sprinkled throughout the park.

I love this picture of Anton and his mom planning what to do. They both have the same look of concentration on their faces.

Saturday afternoon we went up Namsan Tower. It was a beautiful day, so the views from the top were great. There was a festival happening at the park on top of the mountain, complete with traditional dancers and drummers.

One of the things I enjoyed the most on Saturday was the realization that people would have assumed I was Russian. Anton and his parents mostly spoke in Russian to each other, and as long as I kept my mouth shut anyone looking at us would jump to the conclusion I was Russian too. I have no idea why I got such a kick out of this.

Sunday Rebekah was fully recovered and able to join us. Here we are, well, here our feet are, modeling some of the socks we bought at the market.

Rebekah made a delicious brunch for the five of us, then we headed back into Seoul. Our first destination was Namsangol Hanok Village. There are traditional Korean houses set up to view, along with displays of traditional arts and crafts. We were lucky enough to see a bride and groom doing a photo shoot. The little boy in the bottom right picture is spinning a traditional Korean top. I tried and failed.

Next we walked over to the Bukecheon Hanok area, which has a mix of old and modern homes. You can see the ripe persimmon in the middle picture at the bottom of the collage. Rebekah said persimmon trees In Korea are kind of like apple trees in Canada. There are random ones growing all over the place. And if you check out the picture on the bottom right you will see why Fergus shouldn't be worried about me transferring my affections to a Korean dog any time soon.

Insadong, a big tourist market, was our next destination. Sorry I don't have many pictures, but it is a crazy, busy place. We decided to split up while we shopped and then meet at a designated spot 45 minutes later. I was on a mission, and Rebekah went with me to help me accomplish my goal.

When we had dinner at the teacher's house a couple of weeks ago, the teacher was wearing what is considered to be a "modern traditional" Korean shirt. I am not the kind of person who is into clothes or fashion (unless wearing colorful hand knit socks counts), but the minute I saw that shirt I knew I wanted one. The very first shop we went into had exactly what I was looking for! If I get brave enough, once I get home I might take a picture of me wearing it so you can see what I am talking about.

We had told Luba about all the great socks you could find at the markets, and she had seen the ones Rebekah and I were wearing that morning. She was also a woman on a mission. I think Anton and Alexander's mission was to get us out of there!

After dinner, as the sun was setting on my last day in Korea, the five of us strolled along the path that runs along both sides of Chongyecheong Stream.

Anton's parents were still suffering from jet lag, so headed back to That Hotel. It was my last night and I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to Rebekah, so we decided to go out for some Soju and a second dinner. According to Anton it is a very Korean thing to eat two dinners. I'm not sure if I believe him, but since we had eaten so lightly the whole time I was in Korea I had no problem being extravagant on my last night. We went to a Soju bar, which was a new experience for me. You get your own little room, complete with a TV. After our second dinner we decided we better go to Baskin Robbins one more time, too. The evening ended with us at one of our favourite spots - the shooting gallery.

I am now somewhere over the Pacific, reluctantly making my way back to Canada. I know I'll be glad to be home, but it was awfully hard to leave. I'm not quite done blogging about my trip though. I plan to write a review of my Love Motel, and possibly a wrap-up post with my reflections on Korea and its people. Thanks for going along on the journey with me, and for all you comments, emails and Facebook messages.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Superlative Challenged

To start things off here is today's random collage.

Top left to right clockwise: pigs at the ceramic store; TVs on the city bus; I have eaten tons of  these grapes!; random wall in Seoul

Now, about Thursday. Anton and I headed out on the bus to meet Rebekah at her school. The bus driver seemed to have some kind of death wish. The bus was absolutely packed which meant we had to stand, hanging tightly onto the dangling hand grips as the driver, who I am sure was on drugs, did his best to fling us off. By the time we got to the town where Rebekah teaches I felt just like I do when I finish working out at the gym.

I am so glad I got a chance to see the school where Rebekah works. Here she is at her desk in the English department.

The three of us hurried off to catch another bus, one that fortunately had a sane driver. We were headed to an area called Pocheon, and more specifically to the restaurant we had reservations for. Rebekah's Korean co-teacher had made the reservations for us. This restaurant is not in a place frequented by tourists, and making the reservations is a bit complicated, so we needed a native Koran speaker to help us out.

The sign in the inset is for the restaurant we are headed to

We were to be there at 6:00, and had been warned by the co-teacher to be on time. This restaurant only serves one dish, and they have it ready for you as soon as you arrive. Here is where the rest of this post gets challenging. I have described all the amazing food I have eaten since I have been in Korea. I feel like I have already used up every adjective possible for describing the mouth-watering food that makes up their cuisine. This leaves me with a problem, because last night's dinner topped them all!

So instead of using descriptive words to give you an idea of how good this meal was, I am going to use a ranking system. Before this dinner there was a three-way tie for my "best meal ever" - Peking duck eaten in Beijing, dinner at Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant in London, and the Perthshire breakfast I had at Gilmore House B&B in Blairgowrie, Scotland. It is now officially a four-way tie.

When you are seated the side dishes are immediately placed on the table. One of these was a cup filled with a hot pumpkin/squash purée. Very different and oh so good!

They also had a favourite of mine - Korean chives with hot chili spices. I bought a packet of seeds so I can try growing this variety in my garden at home.

All of that was just the lead-up to the star attraction. This is hobakori, a whole squash filled with duck meat that has been smoked to perfection. You can't begin to imagine how good this smells as it is placed in front of you! The server uses big scissors to cut the sides of the squash, pulling it down in wedges to reveal a heaping mound of the smoked duck meat.

There is a pitcher of honey mustard sauce you pour into a side bowl.

The idea is to dip your bite-sized piece of meat into the honey mustard sauce, then place it and some of the squash on top of one of the thin slices of colorful pickled radish. Then you wrap it up and pop it into your mouth. And repeat over and over until, sadly, there is nothing left on the platter.

It turns out the meal wasn't quite over with yet. After the platter is cleared away a burner is brought to the table and a huge pot of duck soup is placed on it to heat up. The soup had the sesame leaves I love so much simmering in the broth. Oh my...

Anton's parents arrive tonight, and we have a busy weekend planned doing some touristy type things in Seoul. I probably won't have a chance to blog again for a day or two, but promise to recap the weekend as soon as I get a chance.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Old Friends, Ancient Walls

I had really been looking forward to Wednesday's hike on the Seoul Fortress Wall of Mt. Bugaksan, and I have to say it more than lived up to my expectations. Unlike Sunday's hike with Rebekah, which was all about navigating the rocks, this one was about the stairs. Up stairs and down stairs, the trail followed several kilometers of the ancient wall whose first section was built in 1396.

This mountain is in the heart of Seoul. The views down to the city were spectacular. The wall isn't really visible when you are down in the city proper, at least not from the parts of Seoul where I have been. I didn't even know it existed until Rebekah said she had done the walk with her hiking club.

In 1968 some North Korean commandos managed to sneak into Seoul and attempted to ravage the Blue House. Security measures have since been put in place to guarantee there isn't a second try. This means every person walking the trail has to show their passport and sign in before being allowed access. You are given a number to wear around your neck and warned to only take pictures in designated spots. Spying is strictly forbidden.

Guys in blue are stationed all over, making sure you stay on the path and follow the no picture rule. I found out when taking the picture of the deer (yes, it was a real deer), that they weren't joking about the picture thing. The tree with the circles painted on it is called the Incident Pine Tree. The rings show the bullet holes from the battle with the North Korean commandos.

I am breaking tradition in today's blog post and not showing any food pictures. This isn't because Wednesday night's dinner wasn't good. It was! But this meal was about something way more important than food. It was about relationships.

A couple of years ago, through Facebook, I was able to reconnect with some very good friends from my years spent living up north in Fort St. John. While there are many negative things one could say about the social quagmire that Facebook is, I have to say this ability to find long-lost friends is a point in its favour. Bill was the pastor of the Presbyterian church I attended, and his wife Diana and I were very good friends. We eventually escaped the north, and they did as well. Life found us on two sides of the country, then, after they became missionaries in Africa, halfway around the world from each other. As the years went by we eventually lost touch with each other.

Imagine my surprise two years ago when their son Liam sent me a friend request on Facebook! I discovered they are now residing in Korea, and as soon as I knew I was coming to visit Rebekah we planned a reunion. Last night Liam, Bill, Diana and I sat down to dinner together for the first time in over twenty years! What a treat it was to reconnect with them.

We talked and laughed and shared stories together for almost three hours, and if time had allowed I'm sure we could have gone on for many more. I was so caught up in our conversation that I forgot I had my camera with me, so don't have many pictures to share of our evening together. But that's okay, because a camera can't capture the important thing, the thing that made this evening so special - friends reconnecting, sharing their hearts and life stories with each other, so happy to have crossed paths in this warm-hearted country after all these years. I hope we don't have to wait so long until our paths cross again!

I promise there will be more food pictures in my next blog post! Here's the random collage of the day.

Top left to right clockwise: Food drying on a roof; a motorcycle policeman (he reminded me of a comic book character); brooms for sale; ripe melons at the market

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How a Korean Thinks

Anton's Korean friend drew him a diagram the other day to show him why Anton should be staying at the love motel and letting me stay with Rebekah at their apartment. I laughed when Anton showed it to me, so have copied it out for you using the Skitch app on my iPad. It is a great illustration of how a Korean thinks verses a Westerner.

The idea is that Rebekah has lots of time left to spend with Anton, but not so much with her mom. It doesn't get any blunter than that!

On my way down to the river yesterday I saw a couple of interesting things. The first was as I went to cross a street. Those are slices of some kind of squash, set out in the sun to dry. What I find interesting is how people take random spaces on the sidewalk or medians to put out their peppers and other vegetables to dry. They don't seem to be worried that anyone will take them, and assume everyone will step around them as they walk by. You could never do this at home.

It is also very common to hear a truck vendor using a loudspeaker to advertise whatever he is selling as he slowly drives through the streets. He will park in one spot for a little while, then move on. This garlic truck was popular, which isn't a surprise given how much garlic Koreans consume!

I decided to focus today's random collage on some of the street food commonly found in the markets. It will give you an idea of why I am staying away from it. As delicious as it all looks, I am pretty sure it's not gluten-free!

Last night's dinner was another special one. Rebekah wanted to make a Korean style meal for me while I was here. I felt sort of bad since it meant she had to hurry home from work, go buy the ingredients, then put it all together. The mom in me wanted to tell her to sit down and let me do the cooking, never mind the fact I know absolutely nothing about how to cook Korean food.

She made a wonderful soft tofu miso soup, pan fried and seasoned tofu slices, mixed rice, and seven side dishes. It was wonderful! As much fun as it has been to eat out at so many different places, I have to say there is just something about a home-cooked meal that is so much better than food eaten in a restaurant. I did find it sort of funny that they had to buy extra utensils and another bowl so there would be enough for everyone. They live a very minimalist life!

Our evening ended with Anton going to the nearby Baskin Robbins to get some take-out ice cream. They put a small chunk of dry ice in the bag so the ice cream doesn't melt on the way home, which pretty much made this my best ice cream eating experience ever!

Now I am headed out the door, Korean ibuprofen packed into my bag, ready for another day of adventures.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stir Crazy

Typhoon Sanba has come and gone, and I have to admit It was a disappointment. The storm pounded the bottom part of the Korean peninsula, but veered east before getting to Guri. This meant we missed the drama of high winds and were left with just the buckets of rain that came with the storm. Most of my day was spent in my motel room, a place completely devoid of personality. I read, knit, and spent time on the Internet.

By mid-afternoon I was going nuts. I don't handle inactivity very well and had to get out, rain or no rain. I decided to grab my iPhone and go take some photos. (I was worried my camera would get wrecked, so sorry if the quality of some of the pictures isn't the best.) Rain was washing down the streets in waves. My umbrella was basically useless. There was no way to stay dry. Within minutes the bottom of my pants were soaked, as were my shoes and socks. But faced with the choice of being wet or sitting in the motel room for the rest of the afternoon, I kept going. I think my favourite moment was when I saw a lady out shoveling rain from the front of her business. Yes, shoveling! It was a shift in thinking for this Canadian to realize that people shovel something besides snow.

The usually crowded and colourful market streets looked sad and empty. The few displays that were set up were covered in plastic. The fish stall was an exception.

I have to confess that after posting about Anton pulling a muscle when we played badminton that I have got my just rewards. Something rather bad happened to the back of my leg on the hike with Rebekah on Sunday. I know the exact moment I injured it, but at the time didn't pay very much attention. It just felt like a twinge. By yesterday afternoon it had gone from a twinge to an ache, probably helped along by all that sitting and inactivity. With Anton's help I found a pharmacy and bought what I am really hoping is ibuprofen. Here is The Moment.

It was still pouring last night when the three of us went out for dinner. It was really gross putting back on my wet socks and shoes, but it would have been futile to pull out dry ones. We went to a restaurant that serves pork dishes. I am not a huge pork fan, but after this meal I might reconsider. We had Daejikalbijjim - a spicy pork stew. The huge bowl of bubbling stew is brought to your table and placed over a burner. The waitress then cuts the meat off the bones for you (sorry the picture is a bit blurry, but she was so quick I barely had time to snap a photo!), and while the stew is simmering you put loads of mung bean sprouts in to cook. You could choose how spicy you wanted it, and I am glad we picked the mildest version. I can't imagine how hot the spicier versions must have been! I definitely recommend this dish!

Today's random collage:

Top left to right: garbage collection day; placemat with outlines for a spoon and chopsticks; little wayside libraries like this are sprinkled all over; one of many beautiful mushrooms in the forest

Now I am going to go take another mystery pill. Anton and I have a big hike planned for tomorrow, and I want to be ready. Maybe I better give him one of the pills too.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dancing the Sanba

It appears staying in a love motel next to a brothel isn't the only excitement this trip is going to provide. In a few hours we are due to be hit by Typhoon Sanba. Hopefully it will be downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it gets here, but I'm not taking any chances. My love den is stocked with food and water, my Kindle and iPad are fully charged in case I lose power, and I am congratulating myself on having thought to pack a flashlight. As I sit here writing in my little coffee shop I see they aren't taking any chances either. All the windows are criss-crossed with tape to protect them from the wind.

Our weekend plans ended up changing at the last minute. Anton was suffering from several maladies, possibly mother-in-law-itis being at the top of the list. On Friday we played a friendly "best of three" badminton match that was surprisingly competitive. Not only did he suffer the humiliation of losing to his mother-in-law in three straight games, he managed to pull a muscle. The trip to Andong got scratched off our list and Rebekah and I explored some local places instead. It turned out to be a great weekend, and I am kind of glad we just hung around Rebekah's home territory.

Saturday, while Anton was in day one of recovery mode, Rebekah and I went to Donggureung Royal Tombs. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around living within walking distance of a Unesco World Heritage site!

On Sunday Rebekah and I went to the nearby city of Nowon. There we climbed to the top of Buramsan. I loved this hike!

We got "adopted" by a local hiking club for part of the climb. Not too far from the top there was the faint sound of singing. As we got closer we could see a group of people gathered around a woman who was entertaining them with a traditional song. I was so sorry she was just finishing the song when we arrived, but as soon as the group saw there was a foreigner coming they encouraged her to sing it again, which she was more than happy to do.

The view from the top was stunning. It was no easy feat to get up on that rock. I am not too keen on heights, and getting there involved way more rock climbing than I am comfortable with. I am okay going up. It is the getting down that scares me. I was worried I would disgrace myself.

Sunday night the three of us went to the local jjimjibang, which is a Korean sauna. It was the perfect thing for a rainy, pre-typhoon evening, and after a five hour hike I'm sure my muscles appreciated it. For those of you who aren't familiar with Korean saunas I will give a brief explanation. Men and women have separate areas, which is a good thing since you do not wear anything while soaking in the different pools, some cold, some hot and some hotter yet. This is where I would like to make a rather disturbing observation. Gravity is not your friend. Also, the no clothes thing isn't really a big deal. Unless, of course, you are the only white person minus their clothes. These hideous orange outfits are what they give you to wear into the common room. It is as close as I ever hope to get to prison garb. The picture of Rebekah is in the common area's salt room. It was like being on a hot beach! The one with me shivering is taken in the ice room. We didn't last too long in that one.

Maybe the very best part of the weekend was having a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea with honey at Rebekah's apartment. I have been drinking my tea, minus honey, out of a travel mug, which has been rather bleak. This cup of tea might just be the best thing I have consumed so far in Korea, and that's saying a lot.

Today's random collage.

Top left to right clockwise: soup anyone?; soju; chestnut grinder, clothes drying on a balcony

It is 11:00 AM and the storm is due to be here in a few short hours. I need to hurry back to the motel to get this posted in case we lose power. No matter what else happens today, at least I have had my gelato. Today's flavour was a repeat - espresso. I thought I might need the extra caffeine boost to see me through the storm.