Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’


Life has it undulations. Its ups and its downs. When asked about my first year abroad, I would usually sum it up as the ‘highest highs’ and ‘lowest lows’. That may not be totally true but everything sure felt raw and magnified. For me now though, I feel the highs still roll around but those lows are fewer and far between. There is one time of the year that inevitably takes its toll on someone removed from family and friends: The Holiday Season.

This was my third consecutive holiday season in which I wasnt with family.

In following in tradition with last years Christmas Eve, I hit up the gym. I thought the place was mine, but in the end I had to share it with two other sorry chaps. Post gym I considered doing something memorably epic. A moonlight hike (under a darn-near full moon)? Nah. Too cold and windy. A soak at the local jimjilbang (public baths)? Nah. Too average… Too naked (kidding, I’m thoroughly desensitized). I settled on pirating a copy of the new movie; The Revenant which was slatted to come out on Christmas Day in the States (like two days from my present Christmas Eve). The movie follows a frontiersman in early America whole is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his comrades. Actually he is buried alive. Apart from epic wintry terrain, it was not a terribly festive movie.

At some-point in my viewing experience, the Christmas hour unceremoniously came and went and soon I was headed to bed. With no fireplace, I did not bother leaving cookies out. Asian Santa probably prefers rice cakes anyhow.

I awoke at the time I normally should on Friday morning. I groggily considered what a Christmas morning had meant to a younger version of myself. Maybe I could rouse some of that bygone energy and excitement and start the day off right with a workout. Yeah right. 2+ hours later though and I was following Tony Horton in an abbreviated vinyasa flow, washed down with a Christmas brunch to be proud of: pan fried Korean duck, sauteed onion, zucchini & eggplant held together with Italian Parmesan and two eggs over-easy. Half a grapefruit and a glass of apricot juice – for digestion and a cocoa-peanut-butter date ball and hunk of organic WI toffee for desert. Just as I was finishing up, mom called via Facebook.

There on my video call was the whole fam-damn-ily, gathered in the living room around the light of the Lowes Creek Tree Farm (a previous employer) Christmas tree. In the cold dark night was a fresh layer of snow, and in the warmth and light of the kitchen; all surfaces filled with tried-and-true Baumgartner consumables centering heavily around cheeses, nuts and meats but not without the obligatory spread of holiday sweets as well.

I gave the guided video tour of my small apartment, and then they watched as I opened my gifts. I said farewell to grandma and the out of town relatives and soon after said goodbye to my parents as well. It wasn’t quite noon, but I felt like I had accomplished the Christmas essentials.

A year earlier I had done a sunset hike to combat a hangover and regain some sense of accomplishment and holiday worth. While not hungover this time around, I liked the cyclical congruity and decided on checking out a neat hike that had been recommended a few weeks prior  by an Aussy expat who has been in the city for the better part of a decade.

So I bundled up in my thickest long-johns and warmest hiking pants. Donned my sweatshirt, fleece and bright orange winter jacket and hopped on my old scooter.

The destination was the 347m Daemisan (Daemi Mtn.) located about 8km away on the scenic island of Dolsan. I encountered a fair bit of traffic  being Christmas and all but I was not prepared for the standstill that awaited me leading up to the infamous Dolsandaegyo Bridge. Five months of scooter commuting in Korea has emboldened me as a driver. I showed no remorse as I weaved along the gridlock leaving stalled cars in my wake. Once across and on the island itself, the situation only worsened. To my temporary relief, I noticed that oncoming traffic was considerably heavier, stretched as far as the eye could see. My conjecture was that out-of-towners  had made the long 27km coastal drive down to Hyangilam Temple at Dolsans southern tip. The temple is infamous for its eastern view towards the sea. The location is the ‘hot’ place to be in the gusty pre-dawn hour on January 1st when Koreans gather to watch the first light of the new year. Anyway I assume the onslaught of cars was from those hoping to see the view without sacrificing a cold sleepless night.

I could see that all the traffic from both directions was filing into Dolsan Park with its perennial Christmas light display. Before seeing the wave of cars, I had considered ending my Christmas night there, amongst the light display. On second thought. Better not.

As I headed south, traffic lightened up while the oncoming cars got thicker and thicker. I zipped on, I enjoyed views of quiet bays, lit by the ultimate Christmas tree topper – bathing the island in that ‘golden hour’. As I approached the isthmus that harbors the historic Musulmok Beach, my destination loomed immediately into view. As the road started to hug Daemisan’s western edge, I started keeping a keen eye for a place to park.

Soon I found an overgrown gravel path leading up the mountain just adjacent to an old abandoned motel. Finding a break in traffic I pulled a U-turn. Heading straight up, the path became more a loose guideline and less a comfortable hiking trail. Not knowing just what was up, I eventually forged my own trail stumbling upon a small housing complex. Despite its reticent – desolate aura, I tread lightly not wanting to disturb any Christmas revelers. I did not take long to realize there were no festivities at hand and probably hadn’t been for quite some time. A small decrepit shrine and temple behind the houses marked the property as a Buddhist hermitage and provided ample fodder for my camera lens.

After the trigger happy craze loosened its hold on me; I found myself leaning in the gusty door frame of the hollow temple, looking out over a russet bay, spattered with islands and framed by hills and mountains. It was quiet. It was tranquil. The moment was short lived as I had a lot of unclear hiking ahead and I needed to hurry if I was to witness Christmas’s sunset from the summit.

I followed a tumbling boulder strewn mountain stream-bed, making good time as I leapt from stone to stone. Upon reaching an impasse, I headed into the pines, with their bramble protectors gathered at their feet. From time to time I would come across a deer trail cutting horizontally. I would follow this until I felt ready to take on the steep incline once more.

A flash of beige to my left! I had disturbed brother deer, also trying to make the most of his quiet Christmas evening. I stopped to watch him bound downhill, before blundering onward.

Cresting a particularly steep bit of terrain, landed me right plop  on the casual step laden edge of a hiking trail. I accepted its invitation with gratitude and continued on at an uninhibited pace, stopping only to snap photos of sunbeams streaming through the pines. As the trail started to plane out, I noticed a cave opening on my right. Stepping in, I found it to be quite dark. Despite having a flashlight app on my phone, I proceeded into the dark unaided. Ahead I could see a faint glow and made for it. As I approached, I could see that the cave made a 90 degree turn towards the left. Upon rounding the corner, I was awarded with a nicely framed view of the sea hedged with Namhae Islands dramatic mountains.

A few minutes later and I was at a small rest area complete with various seating, a restroom and a two story Korean pagoda. A short series of stairs beyond that, and I found myself at the mouth of an ancient stonewalled stronghold. While last years Christmas hike surprised me with its fortress at the summit, this time I was already in the know as my Australian friend had told me beforehand. According to him, this and the Goraksan one are two of 7 located in Yeosu. They were built during the 3 Kingdoms Period (lasting till 668 AD) to defend not against seafaring Japanese but against the Koreans in the neighboring kingdom (Yeosu sits on an ancient as well as modern domestic division).

I entered into the fortress from the east, and found its confines to be quite overgrown apart from a small path. Following this, I pursed that sunset. I was disappointed to find that the western edge of the fortress was flanked with Korean Red Pines growing on a fairly step incline. I wandered down amongst the pulpy sentinels until I had a (less) obstructed view of the sun. I watched as it made its descent towards Yeosu’s hilly coast. The persistent wind had command of my ears, but that beautiful fiery orb held my attention.

I lingered in that spot until the nippiness of the gusts convinced me otherwise.

I picked my way back, with eyes down toward the overgrown trail. Nearing the entrance, I glanced up and stopped dead in my tracks. Not much shocks an audible response out of me. Holy #%*& I exclaimed!! There, robust and silvery was the second biggest full moon I had ever seen. She sat perched upon that 1,500 year old stone wall like a prosperous overindulged owl. Not one of my photos did the magical scene any justice. With the inverse rise of the moon, and the downward pull of the sun, darkness crept on fast.

Begrudgingly I made my way back, but could not pass up the opportunity to scale the two story pagoda. There against my better judgement, I sat with feet dangling over the edge watching that full moon as it traversed upon its unwavering trajectory. My mind wandered back to almost exactly 3 years prior.We were coming back from the wedding of a family friend, it was New Years Eve and I was driving my family east along I-94. The full moon that rose over that frozen Wisconsin landscape was the largest I had seen. It was truly magnificent, and had lived in my mind unrivaled until now.

But alas, night had fully set and with it the increased chill. I packed up and moved swift down the moonlit mountain. Roughly 2/3 through my brisk descent, and around a slight bend in the trail I stopped. 10 yards in front of me sat the dark hulk of an obstruction. As I focused on what it may be, I heard a rustling of leaves to my right. Halfway between me and the roadblock emerged a second black mass. Though it was dark in this tree cluttered section of the trail, I could make out a white mask around its dark eyes. Once fully upon the trail it stopped to stare in my direction.

The most basic mammalian instinct flashed through both our minds. Fight? Or flight? With DiCaprio’s predicament in ‘The Revenant’ still fresh in my mind, my decision was easy. After a few moments pause, the newcomer played it cool and turned to walk toward the still immobile obstruction. As it closed the 5 yard gap, both took off running down the trail at a surprising clip given their stout appearance and  bulky frames. I followed soon after but not without the irrational thought that raccoon type mammals the size of a medium dogs were watching from the shadowy depths of the forest.

I didn’t have to worry long before I was in a fresh clearing of terraced soil. I stopped to admire a jumble or shipping containers welded to make some sort of cafe or art space. It was a 15 min. hump up the still buzzing road before I was on the back of my scooter and wishing it weren’t just a few degrees warmer.

I had decided before the day even began that I would end up at a public bath house (‘jimjilbang’ they call ’em). After the sweaty hike and frigid temps, I was now craving it more than ever. I made an impromptu decision to head toward the area where my school is. There on the coast is a ritzy hotel named The MVL. It looks like a building that belongs in Dubai, with its large curved edges billowed out towards the sea just a few meters away. A friend used to work there and had said, they had a nice sauna.

To say that I felt a bit uncouth was a understatement as I stepped into the glistening sterile lobby with my gaudy orange winter coat and Star-Trekky hiking pants. After paying the exorbitant entrance fee, I wasted no time getting into the water (shedding various organic litter picked up from the mountain as I went). The sauna space was grand although it lacked the quantity and variety of pools that I have experienced elsewhere. Being Christmas night and all, the space was mostly empty with only a few other patrons hanging about. The atmosphere was tranquil and refreshing.

After having visited each or the pools of various temps, I noticed a man coming in through a set of glass doors facing out to the sea. I stepped out into the chilly Christmas night clad in only my dripping wet birthday suit and made a b-line straight for the steamy bath in the corner. It was here, enjoying the sweeping views of the night sea and Odongdo Island from this open air 5th floor balcony, that I decided the price was worth it. I idly watched a passenger ship, decked out in obnoxious LED lights as it operated just off the coast. I didn’t think much of it as it stopped with its bow pointed out toward sea. Not a moment later, and the sky was ablaze with color. I could not believe it, an eye-level firework display from my own private bath.

A Christmas miracle indeed.






There is a game I play. I think back to exactly where I was, and what I was doing 365 days prior. I work my way back until I either run out of years of memories. If I can, I try and place myself to the very second. Its a game of nostalgia of course and its easiest when played on significant days – namely holidays.

I don’t know what prompted me to play this while in the mens locker room at the gym last night, but it was one of those days that was easy to place given that it was Christmas Eve.- A year ago I was wandering around the sleepy frozen village of Jinjeop South Korea, the year prior I was home with family in Eau Claire WI. The year before that I spent a quiet lonesome night in my cabin on the southern ridge of Oahu’s Waianae Mountains. The game last night confirmed that I’m living the unconventional life I had decided to strive for at some point while in University. But a life lived abroad of course comes with its compromises and that too my little memory-jaunt exercise confirmed.

So what do you do on a significant holiday when friends and family are on the other side of the world? You take whatever opportunity crops up. And last night that was the “12 pubs of Christmas”. I joined an English friend whom I had just met on a ski trip 2 weekends prior and 2 of his friends – another English bloke and a Canadian. The beverages and venues were just as diverse and eclectic as our little band of Christmas revelers. By 4:30am I didn’t even know where in the city I was any-longer. I was only 9 maybe 10 pubs in and simply had to call it quits. Fortunately I was able to split a cab back to familiar grounds.

And so begins a nontraditional Christmas. With the urging of my cat I finally found it in me to roll out of bed around 1:30pm. After hours of diddy daddlying (food making, laundry, cat entertaining and an episode of my favorite history podcast did happen in there) I mustered the energy to hike the mountain (Garaksan) that has been so nicely framed by my bedroom window for the past 2 months. It was just after 4 when I finally got underway. My co teacher had mentioned that there were multiple routes to the summit varying from 3 hours to just 1. I fancied the idea of watching a Christmas sunset from atop the peak and I figured I had just over an hour before I lost that opportunity.

Korea is a small place with a relatively large population. Land values are a premium and plots are generally either allotted as residential, commercial or agricultural. Korea is also extremely mountainous. While its difficult and costly to develop a mountain, many of these are left untouched. They become hiking havens for the Koreans looking to escape the concrete jungle that is their country. They also acquire the graves of those hoping to be buried in the traditional way. It is this fact that makes hiking one of my favorite pastimes here. The number of trails on any given mountain are numerous. They vary from paved – lit paths all the way down to simple deer trails. Its the latter that I tend towards. I feel a bit like Indiana Jones when I’m on a trail such as this – bushwhacking through the forest suddenly to have the trees open to a small clearing. The space is usually terraced and the graves (large mounds of earth) are impossible to miss. Its the statues that really do it for me though. Sometimes chess-like pieces carved of stone, other times human figures or animal-like creatures.

The sun had sunk low by the time my tomb-raiding (I took nothing more than photos) was finished. As I neared the summit I could see a stone wall beyond the tree line. A fortress I joked. It turned out the wall was actually quite formidable at about 12′ high. Two ends of the wall opened to rough hewn steps. A sign at the top informed me that I was in-fact standing in a fortress that was built sometime in 600AD. After I spotted my apartment and had my fill of photos, I continued on along a ridge trail that ended at a picturesque raised pagoda facing west. A man was already inside audibly praying with eyes closed toward the setting sun. A Christmas prayer? The wind was brisk but I had a good 5 minutes left before the sun would set behind the distant mountains. A young man was also with me. I asked if he wouldn’t mind taking my picture against the fading pallet of color. He obliged and was then kind enough to share his thermos with me. After some chit-chat we parted with a “Merry Christmas”. Him off the way I had come, me traversing the steep western face – keen on making the most of the dwindling light.

At my first opportunity I was off the main artery of the trail and back to bushwhacking. I walked with eyes down cautious of the leave-laden boulders of which I was treading. An abrupt scramble – the flash of beige in an upcoming cemetery alcove. Over a year an a half ago my boss had taken me on a nighttime drive. It was one of my first nights in Korea and to impress, she drove me and a coworker to a nearby reservoir. It was a quiet weeknight and the narrow mountain road was empty apart from a small deer that dashed out in-front of us. Unexceptional for a Wisconsinite but shocking for my Korean boss who had lived in the area closer to 40 years and had never seen a wild deer. The land to people ratio has driven mammals to near nonexistence on this small peninsula. Honestly just seeing a squirrel gets me excited. You can imagine my feeling on this near dark Christmas evening.

After a while the trails started to contradict my instincts on where I needed to be. I pretended I was the deer and made my own way through the forest. It wasn’t long before I was sliding on my butt down the steep grassy terrace of yet another leaf covered mortuary. Almost like Christmas Day sledding back in WI. Sans sled. And snow.

It was fully dark by time I had arrived back home.

The rest of the night entailed a Jeonbokjuk (abalone porridge – a favorite of mine -a delicacy often gifted to kings of Korea) dinner followed by a green tea icecream mochi from Baskin Robins. As Christmas dinner digested I watched a BBC documentary on dreams. The night wore on and I decided it was time to partake in the most Christmasy event of the day. Time to open those presents and letter Mum had sent a few weeks prior. I was happy to come away with a new pair of “local” mittens, socks, a scarf and chocolate. My cat was happy to frolic in the aftermath – bows, paper, boxes and ribbon all became predators. My apartment finely dusted in gold glitter reminiscent of shimmery Christmases past. I was soon happy to crawl into my warm bed. The thought of sugar plums dancing through my head.

Despite the absence of family, friends, snow and familiar holiday grub, the day I deem a success. Thanks in no small part to the thoughtfulness of my loving family, a kind young man with a thermos and a lone Christmas deer. I shouldn’t have a problem placing myself 365 days henceforth.