Monday, 16 January 2012

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival

The whole of Hwacheon county is covered in ice. There are rivers and lakes of ice tucked away in valleys between the mountains. Koreans are walking on the rivers. They are walking on the lakes. They are hosting the Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival. Hwacheon is apparently famous in Korea for its frozen lakes and rivers and it is also famous for the Sancheneo mountain trout that scurry about beneath the surface of these rivers. Every January thousands of Koreans flock to Hwacheon for the ice festival for their chance to go fishing (and do many other winter activities) on the 150m wide river that meanders through the town of Hwacheon.

Natalie and I went to the festival on Saturday and boy was it busy. We thought we would arrive early to avoid as many crowds as we could but even at 9:30am the river was jam packed with people trying to catch themselves a mountain trout. Quite a spectacle.

First of all Natalie wanted to go ice skating. The ice skating event was right at the far end of the festival which gave us the chance to walk around a little before we hit the ice. There were snow sculptures everywhere, giant penguins and igloos, polar bears and ice castles. There was one ice castle which you could walk inside which the Koreans found especially amusing. There were go karts on ice, bobsledding, tubing and tonnes of other freezing activities which you could partake in if you were indeed crazy enough.

I attempted to ice skate and when I say attempted I mean I slid the skates on tried to stand up and promptly decided I’d give it a miss. I instead followed Natalie around the rink which was sort of unnerving as you could hear ice cracking beneath your feet and at times you could see right through the ice beneath you to the bottom of the river. No accidents to report however and I believe Natalie was satisfied that she got the opportunity to do some skating. She only fell over once.

After this we proceeded to get our tickets to go fishing and we spent about an hour sat at our holes with our hooks submerged underneath the ice. Around 50 minutes in I finally caught a fish which was incredibly satisfying. I pulled him up through my hole and un-hooked him and got Natalie to take a photo for me. I thought it best not to name the fish as I was going to eat him. It was annoying at times when you could see fish swimming past your hook but I’m glad I actually got the chance to catch one.

We then proceeded to the barbeque area where you can grill your catch and eat it with chopsticks. It tasted delicious and you can’t get fresher than that can you?

We had a fantastic time at the ice festival and I would recommend it, despite it being bitterly cold we both had a fantastic day out. We depart for Tokyo tomorrow so won’t be updating the blog until I get back, but rest assured I’ll have a nice long post for you to read when I do get around to it.

Wish me luck.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Snip and Snap

Coex Mall is Asia’s largest underground shopping mall. Having shopping malls underground seems to be a theme across the whole country and I can only assume across the whole of Asia. It is located in the Gangnam district of Seoul and covers over 85,000 square metres of floor space. It houses hundreds of shops, a sixteen screen multi-plex cinema, two giant food courts, a giant bookstore, an aquarium, a kimchi museum, a computer games tournament room and three hair salons. I got my haircut this weekend and I’d like to share the experience with you.

I walked around Coex for about half an hour before deciding upon Satin Hair (what looked like a chain hair salon) in Coex Mall. I walked in and greeted the staff behind the counter, asking them if it was possible to have my haircut. They said that would be fine and directed me to the waiting area. I just figured I’d roll with the punches as there was no way I was going to be communicating in English. It was clear from the outset that they weren’t confident enough with their English to hold a conversation with me. Suits me fine, I always dreaded having to converse with my barber.

The salon was one of the largest I had ever been in. They had at least 30 different seats lined up in front of mirrors. It was a stylish joint and if I didn’t know any better I might have assumed that this hair cut would set me back a few bob. My jacket was taken and put in a locker and I was directed by a young Korean girl over to have my hair washed. With nothing but hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate with she led me into the seat, pulled my head back over the wash basin and proceeded to wash my hair for me. This has always freaked me out. I’m used to having a dry cut but I was rolling with the punches so I laid back and pretended to enjoy the rather violent hair scrub I was receiving. Afterwards the Korean dried my hair and led me to one of the thirty seats lined up in front of mirrors.

I was handed a book full of several different hairstyles. The book had every Korean hairstyle you could possibly imagine photographed and displayed on its pages. I found one western hairstyle sported by a fifty something George Clooney look alike. It was pretty much the length I desired and as the hair dresser and her assistant approached I pointed to this style. The book was taken away and the haircut began. She was good. She snipped and snapped away whilst her assistant brushed any hair that fell onto my face off with a sponge. She was adamant that my head look directly forwards, as every time I tilted it slightly she would adjust it straight back to where it was. She snipped away for about fifteen minutes. She made sure no stray hair was left un-cut. This was probably the best hair cutting experience I’ve ever had and I don’t know how my hairdresser back home is ever going to live up to it. I was offered another shampoo once she was finished which I declined, and I was also offered some wax which I also declined as I like to style my own mop but never the less I was very impressed and expected to pay highly for the service. I walked over to the counter and was handed my jacket and then I was told the price.

20,000 won.

That’s great, I thought. That’s about ten pounds for the best hair experience of my life, and I came out of that Salon feeling classy and cool, very happy with my new haircut.

I wondered all weekend what the reaction would be from the people at school and I entered the office this morning to applause. “very good,” “very handsome,” “awwwww, amazing,” “new style?” I’m assuming they liked my haircut but what must have they thought of what I walked around with before? I mean sure it got out of hand a little bit towards the end there but, really? The students were equally as impressed with my new style, they were touching it and shouting about it and were delighted by the sight of it. A rather surreal experience if there ever was one. Who would have thought that a trim would garnish me with so much attention? I’ll be sure to go back again.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Some Like It Hoth

My stomach disapproved of my weekend. It started on Friday. Lunch had been preferably decent all week (the school had been ordering in from restaurants in town). However, on Friday I was given the choice between pig stomach soup and spicy beef. I was told that the pig stomach soup was a little spicy but the spicy beef was stupidly spicy. I opted for the spicy beef because let’s face it; pig stomach soup sounds horrendous. The very idea of it reminded me of the tripe soup I mistakenly ate in Romania. I’ll never forgive a certain Scottish friend of mine for sitting and watching me devour it without informing me about what it was that I was actually eating. Yes, Alex, I am talking about you!

Lunch rolled around and I was the only one in the whole school who had opted for the spicy beef. Everybody was staring at me as I took my first sips. Ji-Sung one of my favourite 4th Grade kids turned to me, waving his hand in front of his mouth he asked, “teacher teacher mouth fire?” I couldn't make myself look like I couldn't handle it. “No!” I replied. “Very tasty.” It was one of the hottest things I have ever tasted and I made myself eat the whole thing. My students and co-workers knew it as well. My face was probably red and I could feel my eyes watering and my nose running. Indeed, it was tasty, but boy oh boy were my bowels in for a treat.

Dinner time rolled around and its Friday night so naturally we go out to eat. It was Nathanael, Russell and I who decided it would be a fantastic idea to go to the Chinese restaurant. They have amazing mandu, great noodles and amazing spicy chicken. The chicken is tolerable on a spice scale and amazing on a taste scale and Nathanael and I shared a plate. I also ordered myself a nice seafood soup. You call that seafood soup? It was even spicier than the spicy beef I had eaten at lunch time and once more I felt obligated to eat what I had ordered. Goodness me. We spent the night having drinks with Ben as it was his Birthday the previous day and departed to bed reasonably early.

Morning broke. Literally. I went to the bathroom three times within the space of half an hour. It was my own fault, I suppose. Surly I will learn my lesson. For lunch I had my weekly chicken burger from the Mom's Touch chicken sandwich take away in town, with a side order of the best fries you've ever tasted. Surly this will help. Some solid food with no spice. Brilliant. Wait, it’s not exactly the healthiest... oh god... oh no...

So guys, we're all feeling good right? It’s New Years Eve, we've had some drinks, where shall we go for dinner? Dak Galbi gets suggested by someone who hadn't had the bowel movements I had been having all weekend and off we trotted. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dak Galbi and the new restaurant in town is brilliant, but more spicy food? When will it end? Half way through the proceedings I skip merrily to the bathroom to find a squat toilet (one of the first I had encountered in town). I dart home to try and make it to the bathroom before I implode. Shoes on, out of the restaurant, slide over the ice, round the corner, past the Hopkido gym, turn right at GS25, past the chicken take away restaurant that I’ve never been to, onto the hill, up the hill, over more ice, past the church, round the corner, up the drive, through the gate, over the snow, through the front door, up the stairs, along the corridors, type in the code, through the door, onto the toilet, relax. That's the last spicy meal I eat in a week!

Nathanael went to the Buddhist temple to literally ring in the new year, but that sounded a little authoritarian to me and I much preferred the dingy Bukowskiesque bar than the camaraderie of a meaningful celebration of something that is utterly meaningless. To the bar we went, that is, Russell, Ben and I, and I was content to not drink stupendous amounts of beer or soju. We exchanged pleasantries and talked about our respective years and toasted the clock as is expected. Then the Koreans came. Soju. Beer. Soju. More soju. Flavoured soju. Beer. Clink. Clank. Before you know it Koreans have managed to get you drunk yet again but that's ok. I had nothing to do the next day and I didn't end up getting home until about 5am. Sunday was full of further toilet based issues but come Monday morning I was feeling fantastic. That's a weekend my bowels will never forget.