Thursday, January 30, 2003

The week's are flying by here in Ulsan. Another busy weekend passed, and we're now looking at a five-day break for the Lunar New Year or Sollal as it's called in Korea. Sollal is a time for Koreans to pay respects to their ancestors and family, which means the country descends into utter chaos for 3 days as 10 million people hit the roads to travel to their hometowns. I think we're just going to lay low and relax for a while, and then on Monday Amy and I are heading to Muju Resort to go snowboarding with some friends. I'll have a full report next week.

Last weekend, on Saturday, Amy and I and our friend Will ventured out of the city to Eonyang, a smaller town about an hour from Ulsan. It was our goal to hike 1,240 metres to the top of Mount Gaji (Gaji-san), one of the many peaks that make up the Yeongnam Alps that surround the Ulsan area. We hit the parking lot at about 11:30 am and started up the trail, and we were surprised to find a significant amount of snow on the ground. Undeterred, we continued upwards for a couple hours, surrounded by magnificient views of the Korean countryside. Apparently, Koreans don't believe in switchbacks, as the trail continued unmercifully straight up the side of the mountain. On the way to the top, we passed many Koreans, most of whom were decked out like they were out to scale K2. Hiking is a bit of a national obsession in Korea, and people take it very seriously. We chuckled to ourselves at some of their outfits, especially at the large crampons most had attached to their boots. Little did we know, we would soon come to regret not having them ourselves!

Once at the top we took the obligatory snapshots (check 'em out online at http://photos.yahoo.com/leojmelsrub > Gajisan hike) and had a quick bite to eat. Suddenly, off in the distance we could hear the distinctive 'Whomp, whomp, whomp' of a helicopter approaching. Curious, we hung around for a bit to see what was going on. Out of nowhere appeared two Korean Search and Rescue guys, one of whom had what can only be described as a large sled attached to his back. They were off to one of the other peaks to attend to a casualty of some sort. The helicopter came in low and fast, and it was a strange looking contraption with no tail rotor. All in all, it was quite exciting!

Our descent down the mountain was a comedy of errors at best, as we slipped and slid down the snow covered trail. Note to self - pack crampons next time we try and hike in the winter. That evening we relaxed with dinner at Will's apartment and met up with some other friends to go and try and find a jazz club we had heard about. Oh yeah, we hit the batting cages as well.

Sunday, Amy and her friend Kristine and I headed down to Pusan. We wanted to try and find a large English bookstore that is there. While at the bookstore we met up with a very friendly Korean guy. We chatted for a while and then invited him along for lunch. We went out to Hyundae beach, which is a very famous beach in Korea. Reminded me a lot of Waikiki in Hawaii, except that it was pissing with rain and generally a very unpleasant day. We had some excellent Indian food at a local restaurant and had a Starbucks coffee on the beach... felt just like being back in Vancouver!

I hope you are all well. It seems my burslem.ca email address is not working at the moment, so in the meantime, you can reach me at leojmelsrub@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Pictures of our house in Ulsan are now online. Check them out at photos.yahoo.com/leojmelsrub!

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Last night it snowed in Ulsan. Sure, we got a sprinkling of the white stuff on Christmas Day, but last night it really snowed. We got about 3 inches and the city was completely chaotic. As it rarely snows here, the local police were mobilized to shovel the streets by hand. I guess Ulsan doesn't have much of a budget for snow removal. The police here are mainly young guys, as it is compulsory for all Korean men to either serve 2 years in the military or they can choose to serve in the police force for 2.5 years.

The kids at our school were ecstatic with the snow. We broke from classes early and proceeded to have a massive snowball fight outside, teachers versus students. It was a lot of fun and a nice change from trying to teach pronouns, adjectives and how to correctly pronounce orange (NOT oran-gee).

Strangely enough, Ulsan actually looked quite beautiful with the snow falling. I guess because it masked the massive industrial smokestacks belching into the sky.

Aside from all the excitement of a real snowfall, the past week has been pretty uneventful. Maybe because Amy and I are exhausted from our Hapkido training every morning. My joints are sore, my muscles ache - yesterday, we had to sit cross-legged on the floor while someone stood on our knees to stretch our groin muscles. I have never felt pain so bad in my life. On the plus side, we're learning roundhouse kicks, flips and throws. That stuff is fun.

The past weekend was a write-off for the same reasons, as we had little energy to do anything but sit around our apartment. We managed to go out on Friday night and on Saturday our friend Will came over and we went out on the town for a Korean friend's birthday. The evening was notable however, as we discovered one of the many batting cages that seem to litter the areas where the bars congregate. There's nothing like getting raging drunk then swinging blindly at baseballs that are firing towards you. Predictably, the evening ended up at one of the singing (Karaoke) rooms for some drunken crooning. I sang Stayin' Alive.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Amy and I have had a busy few weeks, now that we've started Hapkido we're up everyday at 7:00am and off to train for an hour. We've learned all kinds of flips, rolls, punches and kicks so far. The first week was tough, I found muscles I didn't even know I had were hurting. Getting up early means long days, but I'm really enjoying it so far. You all better watch out, I'm going to come back to Canada a lethal fighting machine.

This past weekend, I went out for my friend Will's birthday on Friday night. We hit various drinking establishments in Ulsan and found one that served flavored beer. Not a pretty sight - let me tell you, mint flavored beer is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Saturday, Amy and I headed down to Pusan, which is about an hour from Ulsan. Pusan is Korea's second largest city and, strangely, is a city teeming with Russians. Most of the shop signs are all in Korean and Cyrillic which made for a weird combination. The goal of our trip was to buy a digital camera, and after some shopping around and haggling we settled on pretty decent unit. After a decent lunch to recharge our batteries, we headed to check out Pusan Tower which is located in Yandusan Park. The tower was built in 1973 and stands 120 meters above the Pusan landscape (think mini-CN Tower). You can take an elevator right to the top and look out at the whole city. We arrived right as the sun was setting, so it was quite a spectacular sight.

We both really enjoyed Pusan and I think we may head back this weekend to check out some more of the city.

Sunday, Amy and I and our friend Christine went to see the latest 007 movie, Die Another Day. An excellent movie that was even more realistic, given the current geopolitical climate in the Koreas. Kim Jong Il (North Korea's own Dr. Evil), with all of his recent nuclear saber rattling, is not hugely popular these days. I'm not sure of his game, but the reality is that the South Koreans have lived with the threat from the North for the last 50 years (the capital Seoul is only 25kms from the DMZ) so it barely registers as a concern to most people here. Hardly the 'crisis' that CNN is making it out to be.

That being said, Die Another Day is causing a lot of controversy here, with many calling for a general boycott of the film because of the way it portrays Koreans in a negative light. Personally, I think that's a load of rubbish, and that the Koreans have become hypersensitive to the way the world sees them. It's one thing to be proud of your country, but Korean nationalism seems to run rampant, and at times it can be quite frustrating being a foreigner here.

I mean, it's only a movie, and no one takes Bond movies seriously anyway. I don't remember huge cries of outrage from little people when Nick Nack ('Da Plane, 'Da Plane) was the baddie in The Man with the Golden Gun.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Man, is it cold here. The weather has really taken a turn to the colder in Ulsan. It's a bitter, biting cold, but is somehow tolerable only because there is still blue skies and sun everyday. Most of the rest of Korea has been blanketed with snow, but so far, here on the east coast of the pennisula we've escaped the white stuff. It's so cold that there were pictures in the news today of the Han river in Seoul frozen completely - our school's water pipes have frozen solid, so maybe that counts...

Last weekend, we ventured out of Ulsan on the bus up to Daegu, a large city about an hour and a half away. Our goal was to visit the Costco and stock up on some cheese, which is one thing you cannot find come hell or high water in Korea. Well, they have processed slices, but it's hardly a substitute. Anyway, we are now proud owners of Korean Costco cards. The store is a similar concept to North America, except that in Korea, most large department stores are quite the opposite layout to what we'd be used to. For some reason, the parking is all above ground and the actually shopping is in the basement. Until we figured this out, there were a few times we took the elevator up only to find ourselves wandering around in some random carparks. The most refreshing thing was the silence... solitude in shopping.

Most of the stores in Korea insist on blaring music at full volume and having people scream into microphones trying to sell you all kinds of crap you don't want. Costco was quiet... and we bought lots of cheese.

In other news, Amy and I have started Hapkido classes. Hapkido is a Korean martial art that focuses on pressure holds and flips. It has the reputation of being the "street fighting" martial art as we will learn to defend ourselves from knife attacks and muggings. Real Steven Seagal kind of stuff. I'm actually contemplating growing a ponytail. Our instructor is a black belt champion in Hapkido who speaks no English. There are several other foreigners who are in our class, and a few little Korean kids who will no doubt kick our asses.

This weekend we're off to Pusan, which is Korea's second largest city and promises some good shopping and interesting sightseeing. I'll have a full report next week!

Friday, January 03, 2003

Well, we've rung in 2003 in Korea and being 17 hours ahead than most of you on the West Coast, we got a jump start on the Year of the Goat. Allthough officially, by the Chinese calendar the year 4700 doesn't begin until February 1st.

Thanks to everyone who sent us pictures from the various celebrations that were happening. I hope you all had an amazing time. From the look of it, some of you may have it enjoyed the New Year slightly more than others...

Our celebration in Ulsan was fun. My sister Joanna was here from Jeonju to visit so we all met up with some of our Korean co-workers and went out for dinner with our Hagwon's director and all of our bus drivers. Dinner consisted of barbequed pork, and as is Korean tradition, many varied side dishes. As with most meals it was accompanied by large amounts of soju. And, as is Korean tradition, it also meant that a fight had to break out as well. Two of our bus drivers took it upon themselves to stir things up, and after some pushing and shoving (and smashed glasses) we all beat a hasty retreat from the restaurant.

Myself, Joanna, Amy and our Korean co-workers headed over to the Royal Anchor, Ulsan's popular ex-pat pub. We met up with some other foreign teachers and partied through the New Year - complete with countdown, but without Dick Clark. From the Anchor, we proceeded to another popular foreigner hang-out, the Asshole Bar. Which, wins my vote for best name for a drinking establishment. At the Asshole we danced the night away - well, at least, till I punched out at about 3:30am. Way too much soju...

New Year's day was relaxed and we spent much of it recuperating at home. In the evening, we met up with our Korean co-workers again, and headed out to one of the many Nori bangs (rooms) that populate this city. Nori bangs are similar to Karaoke, but you get your own private room where you can make a complete ass out of yourself in relative privacy. We sang an ecclectic mix of tunes, ranging from Korean ballads to Eminem and the Sex Pistols. I'm proud to say I butchered pretty much everything I sang. And for the record, we have it all on CD, so if you're lucky enough I may even share some of them with you...

Work has gotten crazier now, as Korean students are now on a two-month winter break from school, which for them simply means many of them just have to go to more Hagwons. We all have extra classes to teach, but thankfully we have another foreign teacher who is working part-time at our school for the next month to cover the extra workload.