Monday, September 20, 2010

Lost in Translation

Happy Chusok!

Wednesday is a special holiday for the Koreans.  To the locals it is a sort of Thanksgiving/Day of the Dead combo that is celebrated for several days.  This is a time to be with family, wear traditional clothing, eat special foods just for this occasion, a visit the cemetery to honor the deceased.  To expats such as ourselves, it mostly means vacation at an unusual time - September!  Most people return to families, which means that Seoul more or less empties out and lots of businesses close for the holidays.  Many of the teachers at our school (foreigners) head out of the country for the week.  We did not.  We headed to a resort in another area of Korea where we cashed in on some timeshare.  At least, that is what we WANTED to do. 

Turns out that Cheongju and Chungju are not the same place.  Just try pronouncing both of those names aloud once and see if you hear a difference.  I didn't, but apparently the guy at the bus terminal did, because when I asked for 4 tickets to Chungju, it was heard as Cheongju.  Both cost about the same fare and lasted about the same amount of time, so I didn't know the difference.  Our family happily boarded the bus and settled in for a 2 hour ride beginning at about 7:10 PM on Friday night and ending at 9:00 PM on Friday night.  Perhaps we should have been suspicious when the first taxi driver we came to refused us service.  Instead, he indicated the guy behind him who promptly KICKED out some poor schmuck in the back who thought he was going to get somewhere!  We apologized, put our luggage in the trunk and got in the cab with "John Denver."  (You'll understand in a minute.)  He knew a little English.  I showed him the resort address, carefully sounding it out with him.  He punched it into his GPS and we were off.  I expected a 5 minute ride and a 6000 Won fare (as promised by the Resort paperwork).  He was a pretty good conversationalist and began making small talk.  Pretty soon we were out of the city.  After 15 minutes I felt suspicious.  What had gone wrong?  Our driver helped us to understand: we had arrived in Cheongju, a happy 84 km from Chungju and he was taking us there!  We were in for a long ride - literally!

Chalk that one up to experience!

Thankfully our driver was a good guy.  He asked questions about the US and spoke of how he would love to travel all over the US some day, but he was just a poor taxi driver.  He spoke about how all American women are seen as "movie stars."  (I guess that makes me a sort of movie star!)  He told us he knew a little John Denver and began singing "Country Road Take Me Home."  Brent and I joined in.  We had some regular karaoke going on!  Eventually we saw it.  Our place was near the top of a mountain.  The taxi began the long ascent.  We passed some poor young young guy walking up the sidewalk that lined the road.  I wanted to pick him up, but there was no room in the car.  "What a long walk that would be," I thought.  At last we arrived.  We were elated!  It was about 10:00 PM.  So, 1 hour, 84 km and 100,000 Won ($100) later we were saying THANK YOU to John Denver.

It doesn't end there, of course.

We plopped into bed (as a one bedroom, one kid slept on the floor and the other on the couch) and drifted happily to sleep.  The next morning we discovered what a beautiful, remote setting our place was in.  Lovely!  The mountains were misted over in the distance and looked 2 dimensional - just like in the Korean artwork you see.  We made our way down to breakfast - a traditional Korean breakfast - our first.  Korean breakfast is just like Korean lunch or supper; essentially there is no differentiation.  We were served rice, soup, kimchi, a fried egg, and a few other side dishes.  Much of it was quite good.  Next up - doing something fun!

One problem.  No car and no public transportation meant taking another taxi into town - yes, Chungju.  It turns out we were still 20 minutes from Chungju!  Yet another long and costly taxi ride into town.  No worries, though.  We were determined to have a good time.  So, we headed toward the Visitor Information Center.  What luck.  The minute we walked in, a kind, local English speaking couple came in too.  "What are you doing here?" Matt asked.  "We're here for Chusok, just exploring."  "Really?"  "Yes, what is there to do around here?"  Well, the couple proceeded to give about 30 minutes of their time explaining what might be good to do in the area with the kids.  Very kind of them!  Unfortunately, the thing we most wanted to do was take a ferry around the big lake there, but they were only running the short route due to Chusok and we wouldn't make their departure that day.  Another day, perhaps.

Finally, we took off for our adventure.  Taxied to a nice park with lots of monuments, statuary, and a beautiful view of the river as well as a lovely lookout tower.  We also discovered a forgotten Buddhist Temple tucked in the hillside.
Next, we taxied to another park that held a 7 story pagoda marking the very center of the Korean peninsula.  Cool.
Wandered into a small museum, again looked at the river and generally wandered around.  Taxied back into town to seek out public transportation back to the resort (as it would be much cheaper).  We had a bit of supper at Pizza Hut (no the pizza does not taste quite the same.) As usual, we met people who adored our children and wanted to talk to them and touch their hair.

Eventually we got on the 365 bus to the country.  It was a 45 minute ride to our stop.  We watched the lovely red sunset.  As we really didn't know where to get off, the bus driver kindly stopped at the bottom of our mountain and waited for us to disembark.  So, there we were - 7:10 PM, dusk, at the bottom of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.  No chance of getting a taxi now.  We had only one choice - hoof it to the top of the mountain!

The kids were great.  All in all, I imagine it was a 1.5 - 2 mile hike from the bus stop to the front door.  Anna was the first to make it, then Alec, then Brent (who only hung back on my account).  I brought up the rear, feeling like the guy who comes in last in a Biggest Loser challenge.  But, we made it!  We climbed a mountain!  Once again, we plopped into bed very weary travelers.

The following day it rained.  All day.  Just plain rained.  We had no ambition to walk down the mountain to catch a bus nor pay the price of riding into town to do activities in the rain, so we simply "hung out."  The highlight of the day consisted of experiencing a Korean Sauna (or public bath).  There was one on the resort - kids welcome.  Yahoo!  Boys go one way, girls the other.  Why?  Because public baths are enjoyed nude.  Thankfully, there was only one other woman in the bathhouse.  This made the whole experience a bit more comfortable for me.  Anna, of course, has no problem with nudity; she never has.  So she happily trotted from one hot bath to the next in her birthday suit.  The room itself was amazing - 4 different bath areas (the size of huge hottubs without jets).  One at about 105 degrees F, another at about 100 F, another about the same but with some sort of medicinal herbs in the water, another cold bath (75 F?), and two dry saunas.  The room also contained several standing showers, and seated showers for soaking feet, for example.  It was an amazing facility built to easily hold 50 - 60 people in the baths themselves.  The locker room had over 100 lockers, but there were only 3 of us!  We soaked in one, and then another, and then another several times over.  Lovely and relaxing.

So, were entertained ourselves for the rest of the day as best we could.  No restaurant was open, so we ate convenience store food for lunch and ordered take out "chicken" (which here means fried chicken) for supper.  A nice movie before bedtime and all was well.

Next day.  Rain again.  Drat!  Well, as you could imagine, this did not sit well with us.  Essentially all services were halted at the resort (because of Chusok?) and we had no wheels of our own.  Patience had run out.  So, we called it a day, hopped in a taxi to the bus station in CHUNGJU and made our way back to Seoul for the very reasonable price of 32000 Won total (about $30) for our 2 hour ride.

Now we are back at our apartment and couldn't be happier.  I AM sad that we never made it to the lake there.  We were looking forward to it.  But sometimes you just got to deal with the hand given you.

Think of us on Wednesday; it'll be Chusok and we'll be sure to dress our kids up in their traditional hanbok clothes for the occasion.  Now. . . if we can just find an open restaurant . . .


  1. oh my goodness...... this sounds like the craziest trip to me!! I am glad you got back to Seoul safe! By the way, Chungju is my mom's hometown and where my grandma lives :)

  2. No way! Now I'll never forget it! I wish we would have known, we could have gotten together with her.


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