Autumn blew ever so quickly through Seoul this month and I did my best to enjoy it. Last year Erich and I took a day trip out to Seoraksan to enjoy the foliage and this year Josephine and I did the same thing. Erich and I went later in the month, but I had looked online and the Korean Meteorological Association guaranteed me that the leaves were supposed to be at their peak earlier this year. We left our apartment building around 5:00am in order to get to the bus station in time to get tickets and take the 6:00am bus...sadly buses were sold out until 8:00am so we spent two hours killing time and sleeping fitfully in the bus station. Not thrilled. Theoretically the trip between Seoul and Sokcho should only take a little over three hours (thanks to a new expressway that was built), but thanks to traffic it took us over four and a half hours. Uuugh. Once we arrived at Sokcho and took the bus out to Seoraksan, we entered the park and went straight to the cable car ticket booth, where we got the first tickets available for 5:20pm.
Since we had time to kill, we walked around for a while. I was deeply disappointed to see that almost none of the leaves on the trees at ground level were changed. Apparently when calculating the peak change they are talking about the whole mountain, most of which is at a significantly higher elevation. The ground level was definitely MUCH prettier last year. We started over at the big Buddha, and then walked across a few bridges and checked out the temple.
Don't get me wrong...there WERE some beautiful trees.
Snuggling up to some pretty leaves. I'm a chameleon.
I love this temple. Please note the woman when determining scale. This thing is huge.
Over the river and through the woods.
Pretty trees along the river.
Good luck stones.
At the temple with Seoraksan in the background.
The temple was quite lovely.
Loved this leafy wall.
Then we "hiked" for a bit (read: scrambled over rocks and tried not to die) along the same path Erich and I took last year. After a little bit we decided to perch ourselves on a big rock by the river and just relax. Josephine napped and I pulled out my Kindle. It was really lovely- so quiet and relaxing.
A grove of lovely trees.
Josephine and I enjoying our rock.
By then it was time to dash back over to the cable car and take it up the mountain. Somehow we got our time wrong and thought it was 5:40pm instead of 5:20pm, so we were late, but they still let us up the mountain. The only downside was that the last cable car back down was at 6:20pm, so we didn't have much time. It did get dark a lot earlier up there, though, so I don't feel like we would have wanted to stay much later anyway.
Cable car on its way up.
Looking over Seoraksan out towards the ocean.
Night was definitely falling as we headed back to get in line to take the cable car down.
Once we got back to ground level we started our journey back to the bus station. On the way we happened to run into Shannon. She had Jamie had gone on a hiking trip the same weekend we were at Seoraksan and had done a SIXTEEN HOUR HIKE. That sounds exactly like torture to me...but she lived. They were sore for sure, but got some amazing pictures. Way braver than I. Josephine and I caught a taxi back to the station and grabbed some dinner at GS25 before boarding the bus back to Seoul. Thankfully the ride home was only about three hours and after taking a short taxi ride, we were home. The next day I basically just vegetated at home.
That week at school was fairly uneventful. On Tuesday night I had scheduled a dinner with Ga Young, my newest co-teacher. We had been trying to coordinate a dinner together forever and stuff kept coming up. That day at lunch Yeon Ah (my other main co-teacher) said "Meaghan, can I come to your English language exchange?" To which I replied "What?" "Your English language exchange tonight with Ga Young." "Oh...dinner? Sure." Apparently it wasn't JUST dinner, but also an English language exchange. Sigh. Anyway, the three of us went out to dinner at Kraze Burger, a Korean burger chain. It was my first time there and it was quite tasty. Ga Young and Yeon Ah tried their best to speak only in English and did a good job with only a few awkward and confusing pauses.
Friday night I left straight from school to head down to Busan for the Busan International Fireworks Festival. Originally I was planning to organize this trip, but after going somewhere every weekend I was pretty exhausted and we decided to do a trip organized by William Cho over at Discover Korea. Now, I've been on a trip with him before to Jeollanam-do and it was AMAZING: well organized, impeccably planned, etc. This trip was...almost exactly the opposite. No one from Discover Korea came with us on the trip, William was EXTREMELY late and almost didn't make it to the bus station to give us our hotel information, it was extremely unorganized, etc. I was sorely disappointed, as were the people in our group who had never done a trip with him before (and probably won't ever again!). I don't know what happened, but I have a feeling he is just trying to run too many trips at once. Moments before the bus left we boarded and we were on our way to Busan. This was, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable bus ride I've ever taken. There was no leg room, the stranger next to me took up more than his designated space, it was hotter than hell, and even though I was exhausted I couldn't sleep. Terrible. Thankfully it was only about four and a half hours before we got there. Upon arriving, we hopped into two taxis, one for Julia, Diana and I, and one for the people we didn't know: Dana and Alex (a couple from Canada) and Theresa and Lisa (friends from Australia). It was only about a half an hour taxi ride to the hotel which had a fantastic location basically right on Gwangalli Beach, where the festival was being held. After some slight confusion about where exactly the hotel was, we went in and dropped off our stuff before heading out to get something to eat. Let me just say that this hotel was the most wanton use of clashing wallpapers I've EVER seen in my LIFE. It was...insane. Loud, patterned wallpaper covered not only the walls, but the ceilings. Clashing patterns and colors were placed in big squares on the wall, and then outlined with a "frame" of a third clashing paper. It was pretty hilarious. In our room for three people there was one double bed and a mat for the floor, which I took. Julia and Diana took the bed.
Julia, Dana, Alex, Theresa, Lisa and I headed down towards the beach to grab some food. After popping into a few places we ended up at a family restaurant right on the beach where we gorged on cheese fries, beer, and quesadillas. Here is a fun side note: the quesadillas arrived and I hungrily bit into one after dipping it in sour cream. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was WHIPPED CREAM, not sour cream. It was pretty terrible. One of the other people in the group suggested that someone probably looked at a picture of a quesadilla and figured it was ReadyWhip, so they went with it. UGH! KOREA! That's GROSS.
View of the bridge all lit up during dinner.
After we went back to the hotel and said hi to Jamie, Shannon and Erich who had arrived on the second bus, we hit the sack. The next morning we got up and met for a lovely breakfast at a seaside restaurant before heading off to do our thing in Busan.
Now since this was my first time in Busan you might assume that I did something especially Busan-ish or cultural. You would only be the tiniest bit correct. What did we do all weekend? We hung out at a spa. Now as I am sure you know by now, Korea is famous for their public saunas, or jjimjilbangs. Busan, however, is home to one of the grandaddy's of all Korean saunas/spas: SpaLand. SpaLand is located within Shinsegae Centum City Department Store, which happens to be the largest department store in the world.
Me, Laura, Shannon, Jamie, Diana and Erich posing with the Guiness Book of World Records certificate.
After getting off the subway and weaving our way through the departments on the first floor, we entered SpaLand. This place is huge and absolutely beautiful. And they have spas down to a science. You start by going to the front desk and paying your 14,000won (roughly $12) entrance fee, which buys you four hours to lounge around on the busy weekends. You also get a number, which corresponds to a key in a shoe locker that will serve as your pass, credit card, etc for the rest of your time at SpaLand. After dropping off your shoes and retrieving your key and uniform, genders split and go into their respective locker rooms, where you take the locker that matches your key number. This is where you leave all your belongings, including your outside clothes after changing into your SpaLand uniform. (Just a warning for big girls like me out there: they are definitely Korean sized. I ended up in men's clothes, which provided some hilarious moments when I confused women in the bathroom. There are large public baths, which I was totally not brave enough to try the first day, that are connected to the locker room. After we had all changed, we headed out to explore the many saunas, foot baths, and other rooms that make SpaLand one of the best. (Note: In my opinion, one of the things that makes SpaLand the best is that they don't allow anyone under the age of 13 in. That was...amazing!)
There are 22 themed rooms, ranging from a cold room, to a Roman room, pyramid room, wave sound room, body vibration room, SEV room, and many others. Most were VERY hot (up to 148 degrees Fahrenheit) and had you sweating within seconds. Each promised some sort of healing benefit. There is also a large outdoor area with hot, salty, and/or cold foot baths and foot reflexology paths. It was very cool. All of the rooms are co-ed, so we would randomly run into others from our group as we hopped from one room to another.
No people with tattoos or...skin?...are allowed in, technically.
The all powerful key.
Diana in the salty foot bath.
Enjoying a foot soak.
Outdoor foot baths.
Looking up at the sky from inside the charcoal sauna.
Outside of the charcoal room
"Ice Room" was an extremely comfortable 64 degrees F.
Inside the SWELTERING yellow ocher room.
Diana reaping the benefits of the sea salt room.
Can't you just see the toxins melting away?
Erich and Diana in the SEV room.
There were also a ton of rooms there just for relaxation. Lots of lounge chairs, chairs with personal TV screens, DVD rooms with big plus chairs, cheap massage chairs, etc. There were lots of couples and families hanging out and napping, or eating some food and having drinks. It was great.
This whole room was equipped with chairs with speakers in the headrest, so everyone could watch their own show and relax. I took a nap here after my massage.
Looking out over one of the common rooms.
Important sauna tools: water to stay hydrated, a towel wrapped into a festive Princess Leia hat to catch your sweat in the steam rooms, and a persimmon vinegar drink to cleanse your body.
The other thing that SpaLand has that we took full advantage of was the actual Spa there. The first day Diana and I both got a 30 minute back and neck massage (I happened to embarrassingly be on the squeakiest massage chair ever, which screamed in protest whenever the masseuse touched me. It also helped nothing that he was extremely attractive...I'd much rather be massaged by Quasimodo.) and a 20 minute leg massage. It was lovely, and immediately after I took a nap, haha. Before we left we also made appointments for the next morning to fully take advantage of our spa weekend. Before you knew it, it was time to grab some dinner to go and get back on the subway and go meet two of Shannon's friends who had camped out on the beach to save our spot for the fireworks display.
I thought this was a cupcake when I bought it for dinner, but it was actually some sort of muffin/cupcake hybrid. Not exactly what I was looking for...but it did have a HILARIOUS expression.
I was so thankful that Christina and her friend had gotten to the beach so early to scout out a good spot. By the time we arrived around 5:45pm (keeping in mind the fireworks didn't start until 8:00pm) the beach was already THICK with people. We entertained ourselves for the next few hours by taking pictures, eating, talking, and playing word games.
Look at all those people a full TWO HOURS before the festival started! By the time the fireworks were going off it was just a solid covering of people on the beach.
Shannon, Erich, and Diana photo shoot.
Just one of the many, many, MANY pictures they took.
(Stolen from Erich's Facebook.)
The fireworks show was truly breathtaking. I love that fireworks turn people of all ages into gasping, awed children. There were some styles (shapes created) and colors of fireworks I had never seen before. And the scale was just gigantic over the bridge. Below are just a few of the best pictures I took.
Love the mixture of colors!
Such cool use of the bridge.
Very cool shapes. (You can also see smaller fireworks being set off the barges. And the water on fire.)
I love weeping willow fireworks.
So awesome. The bridge rained fire like a waterfall.
After the show we hung out for a bit and then I went to bed fairly early. The next morning most of the group went to a different spa while Diana and I headed back to SpaLand where I got an amazing 90-minute facial and Diana got a 90-minute European massage. It was beyond relaxing. So wonderful. Then we popped into a few more sauna rooms (we spent at least 3 minutes in each!) before hitting the public baths. Yes. I did it. I got naked with about 50 Korean women of all ages and went in the public saunas. It was...terrifying. Thankfully when I take off my glasses I can't see anything but a blur of skin tone and black. Sadly it does not work the opposite way...everyone can clearly see me. Eek. The first thing you do when you walk in is drop off your towel on the rack and go shower off. Then you get into baths at will, before showering again and getting your towel. After surviving the mortifying experience of just doing the baths I am beating a hasty retreat out the door and there is someone with their head down putting their hair in a towel right in front of where I need to grab my towel. I pause for a moment so she can move, and I am horrified to see, as she flips her hair back up, that she is another naked foreigner and and now we are face to face. "Oh...hey..." she says. "Hi..." I say, shifting my eyes, grabbing my towel and fleeing the scene. Aigh. We just had time to throw on our clothes, check out, and head to the bus station where we met the rest of our group and boarded the bus back to Seoul.
This bus ride started out much more comfortably...better seats, a better temperature, etc. We were cruising along and all was well until we hit HORRIBLE traffic. Suddenly the hydration that had seemed so good while hanging out in the saunas all morning was coming back to haunt me. I had to pee like...NOW. I made the guy from our group who was sitting in front of us who spoke Korean go tell the driver that we had a bathroom emergency and I didn't care if he just pulled over on the side of the highway. That is exactly what he did. Erich, Shannon and I dashed up to the front of the bus, ran out into the grass, and as they held up my sweater I peed on the side of the road. It was quite the day, let me tell you. How much embarrassment can you cram into a 24-hour period?! The bus ended up taking over SIX HOURS to get back...it was terrible. We all hopped in taxis and went home. What an adventure.