Friday, May 30, 2014

Taejongdae Park

Following lunch at the Gamcheon Taeukdo village, our bus crawled in thick traffic to Taejongdae Park. Arriving much later than expected, we only had a short time to enjoy the beautiful park. My Vietnamese friend and I stayed longer, enabling us to take in more of the natural sights. Shaded by the canopy of trees, we walked along the paved walkway. A wheeled vehicle looking like a train transported paying customers to specified destinations. Most people chose to walk though, taking with them children crabby with no naps, pets, and older relatives. Once again, most dogs were small and wore outfits, and some even had their ears or tail dyed in fluorescent pink or orange colors. Other small dogs were carried in special backpacks worn on the chests of their doting owners.   Rest stops, cafés, and shops were conveniently located throughout the park. 

Well-maintained stairways with railings led people down to experience great views and down cliffs to the famous rock beach. Here, people enjoyed climbing on the rocks and resting, observing the light house, large ships, and other scenery. On this breezy, slightly hazy day, we were not able to see the Tsushima Island of Japan. Back at the entrance, we joined many others who waited in lines to board public buses transporting people back to central areas of Busan. 

Following a few firecrackers along the beach near where we were staying in a rather lackluster motel, our time in Busan was swiftly drawing to a close. Until next time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Taegeukdo Gamcheon Village

The following morning, we started our tour at Taegeukdo Village. Located in the Gamcheon neighborhood of Busan, this community developed when around 4,000 followers of the Taegeukdo religion became refugees during the Korean war and settled here. Over 800 cube-like shacks were erected upon the steep hillside, virtually stacked one on top of each other. Photos in one building showed how shanty-like this poor village appeared during the Korean War. Encouraged by the leader of the Taegeukdo religion, the religious refugees began building the concrete homes seen today. Most of the homes are painted in rather bright colors; blue is the dominant roof color. On top of the flat roofs, water holding tanks were a common sight. Occasionally, one spotted a few older residents (only about 10,000 remain here, down from double that amount in the 1980s) working in tiny gardens. Kimchi pots with rocks on top of the lids were a rather common sight; flower pots and lines of laundry added a bit of color.
Book-themed stairway

Visitors (there were quite a few of them on this day) were free to wander through the narrow alleys and steep steps. Many were on a quest to get the “passport” on their map of the village all completed with the requisite stamps from various locations within the village. Some of the homes and surroundings were theme-based, such as the spotted cow, optical illusion, and books homes. Brightly painted wooden plaques in crude fish shapes pointed visitors to some of the more popular locations. A large mural of these fish plaques were assembled in a large mural near the entrance of the village where small shops selling snacks were located. Visitors were taking “selfies” or photos of acquaintances everywhere, sometimes stopping every few feet. Walking further, the harbor of Busan appeared beyond the hill, along with a view of a few high-rise apartments nestled amongst more matchbook-like homes. The city of Busan continues its work to transform the village into a popular tourist site, making it into an artsy area with galleries, book cafés and other cultural facilities. Murals and other public artwork can be seen throughout the village. Visitors are reminded though that it still is a place where people live, and thus they should be respectful of noise levels, where they are trampling around, and keeping things clean.  Although bathed in sunlight throughout much of the day, I think its nickname of “Korea’s Santorini” is a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, it can be an enjoyable visit.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Heroes of the Manuscripts

Back in January of 2013, I blogged about some terrible news I had read regarding Timbuktu. In that post, I wrote about how the Ahmed Baba center, location that housed hundreds of thousands of precious manuscripts (some dating over 800 years ago) had been burned by Islamic fundamentalists. At the time of that writing, it was hoped that at least some of the manuscripts had been saved, but their fate was unknown. This morning, I read with relief a great article entitled The Book Rustlers of Timbuktu. Largely through the proactive and often risky efforts of a librarian, nearly 90% of the over 400,000 documents were saved. Through land and boat, over the Sahara, thousands of small metal lockers - 2 or 3 at a time- containing the books eventually made their way down to the capital. Imagine carrying this out, initially right under the noses of the fundamentalists during afternoon siesta times, facing searches, using public transport including tiny dugout canoes, not having the financial resources, etc.

Amazingly, not one of the documents smuggled down was lost. Efforts are being made to repair the nearly 40% suffering from damage, as well as to digitize the works whose contents range from diaries to medical texts. Just as some successfully hid artwork from the Nazis, dedicated people in Timbuktu saved historical treasures from the wrath of destroyers. They are the heroes of the manuscripts.
one of Timbuktu's beautiful doors
Read about my boat trip up to Timbuktu via traditional pinasse.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Samgwangsa Temple, Buddha's Birthday

True to virtually every place we visited, we arrived late at Samgwangsa Temple due to the traffic. Thankfully it was not as crowded as the temple we had visited in the morning. Although it was still daylight, nightfall was soon upon us. Intent to view and photograph the main temple buildings all decorated for Buddha’s birthday while it was still light, we walked a bit more quickly past the tall clothed zodiac sculptures near the entrance. 

Established in 1983, Samgwangsa (otherwise spelled as Samkwangsa) is an expanding collection of ornate temple buildings dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion. During Buddha’s birthday, the large courtyard, stairways, walkways and levels of the multi-storyed buildings are transformed into colorful displays of lanterns and other light displays. Rather calm music and chanting (likely recorded) emanated from the speakers scattered throughout the complex. Massive colorful dragons flanked both sides of the stairway leading up to main hall. Their heads moved back and forth, sometimes even shooting bursts of flames from their mouths. On the back of each dragon stood a calm Buddhist statue, whose clothing and skin reflected the glow of the ever-changing colors of the lights on the dragon’s scales. To the side of the main hall was a tall pagoda, whose base was surrounded by several rows of colorful lanterns. A dazzling display of neon Hangeul characters and colorful (changing) background would have fit right in with the displays in Los Vegas. 

Visitors willing to take off their shoes were allowed inside the main hall. The elaborately  carved wooden altar was piled with gifts and offerings of food and flowers. A large golden statue of the Historical Buddha commanded the center, while the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the Bodhisattva of wisdom and Power occupied the right and left murals of the triptych. More relief-style figures surrounded the sculptures enclosed in ornate frames. Above, blue-scaled dragon heads spit out their tongues. In typical Korean style, the ceiling and column tops were elaborately painted. Heads of even larger dragons emerged from the painted beams. Devotees kneeling on square cushions bowed, gazing towards the beautiful altar.

The sky now a deep, dark sapphire blue, the entire scene outside was illuminated. Eager to get a better view, we entered into the building containing a large auditorium and ascended the steps to some open windows. The scene before us was magical. Lanterns everywhere glowed. Selective lanterns in the middle of the canopy of lanterns glowed in the shape of the swastika. The dragons were even more impressive, casting their glow. Higher strands of lanterns looked like beads, twinkling against the dark hillside. 

We followed an ascending canopied pathway to another massive building. From above, the canopy of colored lanterns along the curved path looked like an expressway of color. White and cream lanterns glowed on the building’s balconies. Following a winding path up a hill also illuminated by lanterns, we reached a tall pagoda created from handmade hanji paper. The stark white of the illuminated paper pagoda contrasted against the inky black sky and meandering strands of taller colorful lanterns. 

I’d love to read statistics on this temple’s preparation for the festival. How many lanterns were used? How many meters of hanji paper, silk, etc. were needed to create the lanterns? How long did it take to erect the scaffolding and string all the lanterns? How many visitors come to the temple? I read that this year’s celebrations at Samgwangsa was downscaled a bit out of reverence to the lives lost in the Sewol ferry disaster. Considering the display before me, how magnificent it must be in typical years? Truly a must-see.

See more photos of Samgwangsa Temple at my Flickr album.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jagalchi Fish Market

Markets are one of my favorite types of places to visit. Everything seems to be a bit more intense in local markets, from the sellers and their wares, to the shoppers. Markets can be an assault on the senses. Being a port city, Busan is known for its seafood. As such, we visited the Jagalchi Fish market, Korea’s seafood market. Much of the market is indoor, but we chose to spend more time walking through the stalls outside. In both, the variety of fish and seafood was quite amazing. Tanks contained live fish and colorful plastic bowls were piled high with mounds of various colored fish and shells. Dried fish in interesting shapes were arranged with care. Fresh seaweed was neatly cut and stacked. Older women, known as “Jagalchi Ajumma” were clearly masters of this domain, donning short curly black hair, long rubber gloves, and brightly colored waterproof aprons and high rubber boots. 
Gaebul spoon worm

Prepared Gaebul, eaten raw

Visitors had their choice of small booth-like restaurants. Nothing fancy, but definitely places to eat fresh catch. Choose your desired seafood by pointing to the tank or bowl, and soon it will be on your plate. We actually ate at the market twice, once having fish & eel cooked on a hotplate right on our table, and the other time eating a most strange spoon worm gaebul, known as the penis fish. Those tubular non-descript creatures that looked more like bratwurst to me were quickly deflated, their insides scraped out. The outer portions were cut up, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and placed on our table, along with some various sauces. Not quite sure how to prepare or eat them, we patiently waited for the lady to return. Meanwhile, she worked on an order for another table, decisively stabbing one end of a still wiggling eel and deftly filleting it. Guts and other unwanted parts of the seafood were scraped together, then the next items prepared. Perhaps a bit puzzled why we were not eating our food, another lady came to our table and gestured that we were to dip the raw fish into the sauce - no cooking! Can’t say that I enjoyed the taste or rubbery texture, but my Vietnamese friend and I did eat it, albeit giggling while we did. Not satiated, we left and ate a bit more familiar food shortly thereafter. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Beaches of Busan

Flying kites at Haeundae Beach

One of Busan’s attractions is its beaches. Parts of the beaches are rocky, while others had rather large, clean swaths of sand. Much like the parks and mountains of Seoul, the beach areas were designed to encourage exercise. Well-maintained boardwalks, biking lanes, and areas with outdoor exercise equipment abounded. People of all ages took advantage of the facilities, jogging, walking their small clothed pooches, stretching, etc. With the waters still rather cold, no one was out swimming yet. Families enjoyed sitting on the sand, sharing picnic lunches or flying kites of varying sizes. Sun tanning wasn’t a common scene, particularly with the sun-conscious Koreans who favor light skin. On one beach, young people enjoyed a game of beach volleyball. A few tents were set up near the shore. Facilities with bathrooms, snacks, and coffee abounded. Palm trees lined the edge of the beach near the road. On the other side of the road, more coffee shops, restaurants & bars, shopping malls, and high rise buildings abounded. It was interesting seeing the photos of the Haeundae beach between the 50’s and 1970’s, totally absent of tall buildings and modern development. At night, the beach scene with its nearby pubs and bars became noisier. Colorful lights sparkled on the water, reflected from the bridges, cityscape, and firecrackers. 
Haeundae Beach
Biking path along Gwanganli Beach 

Boardwalk along Gwanganli Beach

Monday, May 19, 2014

Yonggungsa Temple

Our first stop of the morning was to Yonggungsa Temple. A common pattern during our driving to the different destinations this holiday weekend, the roads were quite congested - particularly so when we got closer to the temple. Unlike most Buddhist temples in Korea which are situated in the protective isolation of the mountains, Yonggungsa is located right above a rocky shore. Founded in 1376, the main temple was carefully restored in 1970, using the same colors as the structures burned down by the Japanese. Typical of Korean temples and other historical buildings of importance, the site was chosen with great care, ensuring that nature and man-made creations harmonized with each other. 

Much like the road leading up to the area, the entire site of Younggungsa was heavily congested. The pathway leading up to the temple site was lined with vendors selling snacks and souvenirs. People stopped to buy treats as well as to take photos of themselves or friends with their cell phones or big SLRs.  I would have loved to have stayed longer, taking the time to appreciate the many structures and scenes from varied vantage points, but this was not possible during the short time allotted for our visit. I read that the temple on the sea shore was particularly beautiful at sunrise, as well as when the cherry blossoms are in their glory. Another time…

Next to the main temple was a large golden laughing Buddha statue with a rotund belly. People were having fun trying to flick coins, believing it good luck if the coin landed on top of the belly. Scaffolding for the rainbow of lanterns obscured the lower portion view of the happy sculpture as well as the lower part of the main hall. Following the canopy of lanterns down the stairs, I headed towards the beautiful stone bridge and walked across its expanse carried along by a sea of people. Up more stairs, I managed to get a beautiful view of the temple perched above its rocky shore line. The turquoise of the water contrasted with the neutral rocks, and furthermore with the rainbow canopy of lanterns. A few lines of single colored lanterns led further up to some stone stupas and higher yet to a large white statue. A truly beautiful scene that begs further exploration.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Busan for Buddha’s Birthday

This is the first of several blog posts on my recent trip to Busan, South Korea

Taking advantage of the long weekend due to national holidays of Children’s Day on Monday and Buddha’s Birthday on Tuesday, I joined an expat trip down to Busan. Located on the south-easternmost tip of Korea, the second largest city in the country is situated along the sea, rivers, narrow valleys, and even up its many mountains and hills. The larger metropolitan area has a population of around 4.6 million people. Busan is the largest port city in the country and the world’s fifth busiest seaport when measured by cargo tonnage. Ferries departing from Busan connect South Korea to its neighbor Japan in as little as 1 1/2 hours. Subways and buses efficiently transport its many residents and visitors to malls, marketplaces, coffee shops, and universities. In many ways, Busan looks much like Seoul, except that Busan has the pleasure of being by the sea.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

White Temple another earthquake victim

This morning, I read about an earthquake that occurred in Chiang Rai, destroying many homes, temples, and infrastructure in the area. Wat Rong Khun, otherwise known as the White Temple, was one famous victim of this weekend's earthquake. Its architect and artist, Chalermchai Kositpipa, has been working on this his masterpiece since 1996. In 2010, I visited this most unusual, almost surrealistic temple complex, blogging about it. Both the exterior, grounds, and interior were being executed with great care. Unfortunately, photography inside was not permitted. According to the Phuket News, the temple's main structure has sustained significant damage. Large cracks have further widened during aftershocks, and some portions of the murals have come off. It seems that the artist may decide to discontinue this labor of love and leave it as a testament in a more ruined state. I do hope that the damage is less significant than originally assessed, with Kositpipa and his helpers able to complete this major touristic attraction and see his goal finished.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Jongmyo Daeje Ceremony

Today marks the annual Daeje Confucian ceremony held at the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul. A UNESCO performance, the Daeje ceremony honors and invokes the ancestral royal spirits through highly ritualistic events including special music & dance, chanting, and a BBQ of sorts. Last year I attended the ceremony and made this color pencil drawing. This year, a special section will be reserved for foreigners and will include translation, which should help making sense out of what one is seeing and hearing.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Springtime Exercising

Strolling through the blossoms or having a picnic under the petals isn't enough for some Koreans. Getting a little synchronized exercising under the canopy of the cherry blossoms made for an extra enjoyable time. Note how everyone is geared up in their special hiking gear.