To talk about our experiences in Korea without mentioning the emotional aspect of it all would be to ignore the real reason we were in there in the first place. But do allow me to digress from those difficult-to-put-into-words parts of our adventure in Korea to instead detail what we did…this is a travelog, after all. Korea wasn’t necessarily a place on either of our bucket lists, but it became one when Jenna decided to research her early life there. Although this was the primary reason we went there, we figured we could also spend a good chunk of time exploring the country. Similar to Micronesia, our trip to Korea was filled with some powerful experiences, both low and high.
From the moment we got off the shuttle bus in Seoul, we were taken care of like guests of honor. Jenna’s friend Ilhom (originally from Uzbekistan), with whom she had studied abroad, picked us up and took us straight to one of the best meals of my life: bulgogi. If you’ve never had it, bulgogi is the country’s famous barbeque, and literally means fire meat in Korean. It isn’t inherently spicy, but there are numerous sauces and side dishes (“banchan”) that accompany the barbeque, adding levels upon levels of flavor and piquancy. Ilhom just kept the meal going ordering drinks upon drinks and plate after plate of this delicious dish, and I think he and I stayed up until 3 am that night (5 am Micronesia time). The next day, Jenna and I inadvertently set off the burglar alarm in Ilhom’s apartment and were unable to lock his door, so we just hung out around the house. Our third day in Korea, was actually the first time we got a chance to really walk around and walk we did. Ambling around downtown Seoul, we took in an inning of a little league game, hiked up Ansan mountain, checked out the beautiful palace of Deoksugung and watched a cultural performance of ballet, interpretive dance, and of course there was Kpop. The following day, in proper Uzbek fashion, Ilhom hooked us up with his friend Slava who drove us around for the day, first to Minsok Village, a living museum representing a traditional Korean folk village, and then the main palace in Seoul, Goengbokgung, where we wandered amidst the crowds of people dressed in traditional Korean garb. Before leaving the capital city, we were able to link up with GOAL, an organization that helps international adoptees, to locate the orphanage from which Jenna was adopted back in 1986. It was there we were going next.
The next day we headed to Daejeon, a few hours by train south of Seoul, which is where we found the Chun Yang Won (“Heavenly Garden”) orphanage where Jenna stayed for five months before being adopted. Without going into too much detail, we were both very moved by the experience, as the director of the orphanage, Mr. Lee, himself an orphan there some 60 years ago, walked us around the newly remodeled buildings and talked with us about the history of the place that he’s called home virtually his entire life. We met a number of the kids and house mothers as well as Mr. Lee’s family, and Jenna and I both were very pleased to see that the orphanage is a well-outfitted place of love and support for so many kids.
After Daejeon, we headed to the tourism capital of Korea, Busan. Much of Busan is awash in high rise hotels, flashing signs, and selfie sticks. Oh, the selfies sticks; never again will I have to wonder, “Are you taking a picture of yourself or what’s in front of you?” as I try to avoid photo bombing their pièce de résistance. Now I know: it’s a selfie. Some of our favorite things in Busan were the calm and secluded Beomeosa temple (a working Buddhist monastery since 678 AD) nestled high in the hills away from town, Gwangali Beach/Bridge, which is lit up in laser and LED lights at night, and Korea’s largest fish market – Jalgachi, all of which we explored in a single day. Our last day in Busan was one of aggravation, as we were frustrated by the massive crowds and annoying jet ski drivers at the seaside temple of Yonggungsa and on the way back I lost the camera (the same Sony a5000 that took me months to decide on) on the bus. This was also the day that my travel fatigue really began to set in. After 60+ days on the road, it begins to wear on you. In general, people don’t think too much about fatigue when the idea of travel comes to mind (pan to white sand beaches and/or mountain lakes and/or hilltop villas and/or eating out every meal) but it gets exhausting being constantly on the move, learning about new places and how to find your way around, trying to deal with difficult experiences without anything familiar but one another to ground you, constantly packing and unpacking the cavity of your backpack, the inventory can go on and on.
Ready for a break, we headed back north, stopping in Daegu for a day, the city in which Jenna spent a semester studying abroad back in 2003. There we found the famous street market, Seomun, a bustling galley alley with scores of street food stalls that we sampled as an all female punk band went ballistic in the background. Back in Seoul the next day, we took some much needed downtime (I actually tried to go templing but they’re closed on Mondays) before our final adventure: Bukhansan National Park. Bukhansan is said to be the busiest national park in the world per area – it’s only 30 square miles and sees an average of five million visitors annually. We set our sights on a hike that bisects the park from west to east, scaling it’s highest peak, Baegundae, along the way. It’s no wonder that hiking is Korea’s #1 pastime – the views in Bukhansan were spectacular – akin to Cochise Stronghold – and the trail was well maintained and well protected, particularly on the more precipitous sections of the hike that required cables. In the spirit of alpine purity, I didn’t use the cables on the way up and (climbing lingo alert), I’d say it was about 3rd class in the harder sections. Koreans are renowned for their love of hiking (and hiking gear, for that matter) so I can think of no better way to bring our time in Korea to a close.
Although our trip through Korea wasn’t entirely easy, it’s an experience that will endure within me for a long time and in that respect, it was definitely meaningful. The things that resonated with me the most about Korea will be meeting and hanging with Jenna’s friend Ilhom, talking with Mr. Lee as he walked us through his orphanage, and hiking Bukhansan. Similar to Micronesia, Korea is hard to put into just a few words, and many I’ve left out on purpose. But as we were walking hand in hand along the beach on our last night in Busan, letting the cool water sooth my mosquito bitten ankles, with the Diamond Bridge pulsating with rainbows of light on one side of us and hundreds of neon billboards echoing in vibrance on the other, while people young and old laughed and smiled and played all around us, I said, “How lucky are we right now?!” Jenna just flashed that luminous smile of hers back in response. The answer speaks for itself.
Good morning, Vietnam!