rewind a little: while barely settled in gwangju, we were told we would be granted a 4-day weekend, from sept. 10th-14th, for the korean equivalent of thanksgiving & christmas all rolled into one. this was short notice, especially since everyone in korea typically travels on these days to get to extended family in different provinces. it would have been a good opportunity to get out and go to japan or jeju, but we just didn’t have the time, resources, or know-how (we still had yet to figure out the bus system in our own city, let alone try to get out into the countryside). we also had heard of an impending typhoon, so the beaches were out of the question.
instead, we spent the time getting to know our city and area a little better. friday, we explored downtown and found “new nepal” the most delicious indian restaurant in the city. we bumped into some other friends to chat, but didn’t stay out late. i wasn’t feeling the best, and we were both tired from our first full week of teaching.
saturday, we went to the design biennale with another couple. it’s a huge art exhibit with 4 different galleries, on for a little over a month. it’s concepts center around the question of what is design, and it had a lot of great statement pieces covering a wide range of current events and problems around the world. i thought it was fascinating and well-done. i think if i had the luxury of being an artist, i’d do art in a similar fashion: big, 3-dimensional pieces with various materials and mixed media. it was a great way to spend a rainy saturday. our friends had to leave early, so david and i walked home and found a bbq chicken place to eat a late dinner.
sunday, we traveled with a huge group of fellow teachers to mudeung mountain, the most famous landmark of gwangju. it stretches 1,187 meters into the sky, and it’s known as the guardian of the city. koreans take a lot of pride in the fact that it is in the guiness book of world records for being the closest mountain next to a metropolitan city in the world (or so we were told by one exuberant old man who wanted to speak english with us). it has 2 temples nestled in its crevices, and grows wild watermelons. korea’s national past time is said to be hiking, which became glaringly obviously as the number 9 bus dropped us off into another world – steep streets lined with shops selling incredibly overpriced trekking poles, fast-drying clothes, windbreakers, boots, and tons of northface gear. the area reminded me of the jungfrau region of switzerland, that i’d revelled in years ago while backpacking through europe. it was so refreshing to be out of the city, and the sights 7 heights were all new for this iowa girl.
the honeymoon period didn’t exactly last long. i have to admit, i probably romanticize hiking because i rarely do it. this was beyond difficult, for 2 reasons: first, the humidity here actually blows iowa-in-august humidity away, if you can believe it. and i am a self-professed “sweater.” i don’t glow. every time i step outside here, my clothes instantly stick to me. my straightened hair becomes a frizzy puff around my head. my makeup melts off my face.
within the first 10 minutes of hiking (and i am not kidding here) my hair was sopping wet, my bangs plastered to my forehead as if i’d just stepped out of a lake. my shirt hung heavy, totally drenched and stretched out unattractively, and as i looked at down i was fascinated by the fact that my knees (yes, my knees) were giving off enough moisture to create huge, round sweat-stains on the bottom half of my capris. secondly, our chosen path up the mountain was quickly lost, and we ended up trekking over twice as far as we’d originally planned, leading to desperate cries of “are you kidding me?? we’re not there yet?? we’re moving so slow!!” and other declarations from group members that i’d rather not repeat.
we finally summited a lesser-peak, but the views were breathtaking none-the-less. we could see flat green rice paddies far off in the distance, obscured by grey wisps of fog that curved around the peaks above us and all around us. a fine, cool mist was falling, which we were all thankful for. when we turned and looked east, we could see the entire city of gwangju, so far below, stretched out over every inch of the valley, industrial and contradicting the green landscape around it.
we got a little lost on our way down, but made it back in one piece. for dinner, the group all agreed on indian food again, so david and i frequented first nepal for the second time in one weekend. it didn’t matter, the food was so good. afterwards, everyone was exhausted and headed for home. our friend sarah came over to watch a movie at our place. after stopping in at baskin robbins (yes, we have a baskin robbins over here), we chose the movie “everything must go,” a new release that casts will ferrell in a more serious role. we all really liked it.
monday was another ambitious day-trip to Damyang (담양) and Sunchang (순창), led by 2 friends who have already lived here for a year (thankfully), so they knew how to navigate us from bus to bus. our group met at the u-square bus terminal at 8:45, planning to depart at 9. it was our first time at u-square, which is a massive bus terminal that doubles as a large indoor shopping center with a great bookstore, a TGI fridays, and an overpriced GAP. david and i will have to get back there to explore on a rainy day.
the first town we arrived in, Damyang, had a popular walking path surrounded by metaseqoia trees, and also a bamboo forest to explore. the bamboo forest seemed a little commercialized, but i was still excited, as i’d never seen anything like it before.
we arrived in sunchang in the afternoon, and this place was the real treasure. it was a huge area of natural beauty, with walking-paths made of sand (so you could walk barefoot) running parallel to a crystal-clear creek that would pool into deeper areas full of fish. there were waterfalls and bridges and picnic areas and the air was cool and clean. it was a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, feeding fish, eating grapes, creek-walking in cold water, taking pictures. i still sweat like crazy, mind you, but i was more prepared for it than the day before.