Posts Tagged ‘Scooter’

Post Work Wanderings

Although it wasn’t the beginning to my summer holiday, it was the last day of the semester for my students. Thus, I felt some liberation and decided to make the most of my evening.

On my way home I decided to swing by a hillside neighborhood called “Angel Alley” it is characteristic of old Korean style homes built into a steep hill and interconnected with complicated narrow little streets. Well, steep walking paths really. The old walls of the houses are now spattered with an array of intriguing murals. Anyway, I had never been to the top, so set that as a goal. After checking out a modern little cafe, I headed up and was surprised to find a neat old air-raid siren-tower. After snapping some photos, I was approached by a middle aged Korean man who had been getting his exercise on. He told me his older brother is living in Kansas (my mums old stomping grounds) and was insistent on taking photos of me using my phone. I was happy enough to oblige. At one point we climbed atop a lookout point, where he gave me his binoculars and happily snapped away as I looked out over the bay.

After  parting ways and more scoot’n through uncharted waters, I found myself at an empty high-school complex. At one point I peered over a low wall down onto a grassy mound surrounded half by concrete and half by overgrown gardens – all surrounded by this wall. Vowing to look into it later, I scooted on until I got as deep into the school as I could on two wheels.

After parking, I pressed on. Seeing an odd monument buried in the wooded growth of the hillside just behind the school, I headed that way. Leading off behind the mystery monument was a trail going back through an old barber-wire fence with concrete pilings (very similar to the once I had seen at concentration camps in Poland). Despite the humidity, I followed the trail up and up eventually coming to a straight-away that opened to the summit. There on a large man-made terraced table of earth and stone was a small sleeping deer. Kicking myself for not bringing my camera, and unable to snap a photo on my phone as the deer ran off, I moved into the clearing. I had been at this spot a few times in the past year (its the nearest attainable hike to both my schools) and didn’t stick around long before blazing down a new trail to me. This hike is one of my favorite in Yeosu. It is small, terribly achievable and despite being right smack dab in the middle of civilization, it feels quite remote. The best part though is the vegetation. Maybe due to its immediate proximity to the sea – there is great diversity of lush exotic vegetation. It feels almost prehistoric with multitudes of intriguing ferns and vine-cloaked trees…  With little trouble, I navigated back around to the monument at the backside of the school.

I drove back out the way that I had came (the only way to go via scooter honestly) eventually parking in-front of a gate to what looked like a private residence. Peering in, I could see that the mystery gardens that I had spotted earlier were indeed housed within the property. On my way to the staircase leading up, an old weathered Korean man approached me. Obviously the owner of this property, I asked if I could check out the grassy mound (using the little Korean I know). He was quite genial and waved me on. The mound looked just like any traditional burial site except that it was about 6x the size. The knoll was probably able to accommodate 3 VW Beetles parked on-top of it. The south side of the mound (facing toward the house and gate) had a stone arched door-frame with old Chinese characters etched over the head. The doors were made of steel with a  locked sliding bolt keeping them shut. Just to the right was a large tree growing out of the periphery of the dune. Everything that wasn’t grassy mound or tree was concrete. Walking around the side, I found a set of overgrown steps leading up onto the mound. I clambered right up on and over to the other-side. From here the concrete circumference broke way to a small geometric French-style garden. After a brief walk-though, I figured I was just about finished there when the old man came up the steps to join me.

From what I could understand the mound houses a water cistern and was built by the Japanese at some point within the last century presumably. I did not ask about the gardens, but did inquire about the iconic KBS (Korean Broadcasting Service) building visible on the next hillside over. I had noticed earlier in the evening that it was in the midst of being gutted. The old man said that the station had been moved to Suncheon (the next city to the north) and that the site was slatted to become apartments. Not much surprise there. I thanked the man as he walked me to the gate. By now the sun was getting low in the sky, so I decided it was about time I head for home.

I am down to just 3 months left in Korea. There are a multitude of hillsides and cryptic garden compounds to be discovered in this world, but I will greatly miss discovering them here in Korea. Both because of the freedom that I have (mostly in terms of transportation) and the kind forgiving nature of Korean people. I am naturally quite curious, and honestly cannot think of a single time that that curiosity has gotten me into trouble here in Korea. To the next adventure…

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.