Its been a long time since I was in elementary school, but I don’t I recall anyone ever saying they were looking forward to their school’s lunch. I hear they’ve improved since I was kid, but I’m guessing you still can’t really call them balanced, nutritious, or delicious. In Korea, since all students, staff and teachers eat together, school lunch is something I actually look forward to as I find them really tasty and quite healthy. While there’s variety in what ingredients are used each day, there’s always a soup of some sort, a vegetable, a protein, kimchi, rice, and either a piece of fruit, fruit juice, or yogurt. In other words, a pretty balanced meal.
Perhaps part of the reason public school lunches are better than American lunches is they aren’t free (with the exception of Seoul, where after much controversy in 2011, free lunches are now provided to all elementary and middle school students). As a teacher in a rural school, 3,000 won (just under $2) is deducted from my paycheck per meal and students pay roughly 40,000 won per month. Eating the school’s lunch is not mandatory, but I really don’t see how I could pack a lunch that would be just as good for any cheaper. I also think it helps that the smaller of my two schools has a large vegetable garden, providing the freshest ingredients.
Summer Vacation Part 2
Seoraksan is one of Korea’s most popular parks and it’s easy to see why. Its impressive crags are among the tallest in the country and the lush valleys are beautiful year-round. Located just 20 km west of Sokcho, Outer Seorak is really easy to get to by bus. There was a stop right outside the guesthouse David and I were staying in, and it only took about 30 minutes to get to the park entrance. Thankfully, after a few days of solid rain, we woke up to the sun shining and a brilliantly blue sky which made for an extremely beautiful day.
We decided to hike the popular Ulsanbawi trail because we heard the view from the top, especially on a clear day, was simply amazing. It certainly proved to be and the hike wasn’t too difficult. The ascent was gentle until the last few kilometers, followed by about 800 stairs leading to a breathtaking view. If we hadn’t had so many things on our to-do list during our two week trip, I think we would have spent a few more days exploring the rest of the park. Perhaps I’ll make it back to witness the red, orange and gold bursts of color that cover the park in the fall.
Summer Vacation Part 1
You can’t always trust guide books. If it weren’t for Sokcho’s proximity to Seoraksan National Park, I might have skipped over the city entirely. The book I picked up before coming to South Korea makes Sokcho seem like a drab little port city with nothing to offer besides a base for visiting the extremely popular national park nearby. On the contrary, David and I found it to be extremely pleasant and really enjoyed three nights there. It was the first stop on our two week summer adventure.
Sokcho is a smaller coastal city in northern Gangwon Province. We took a bus from Seoul which took just under 3 hours and cost us each about $16. Since summer is peak travel season in Korea, we booked a few nights at Afterglow Guesthouse prior to arriving and I’m really glad we did. I highly recommend staying there if you ever find yourself in Sokcho. A private room with our own bathroom, TV, air conditioner, clean towels everyday, non-fluorescent lighting and a comfortable bed was only $33 per night. It was the coziest, cheapest and cleanest place I’ve stayed in Korea. (Outside of Seoul and Busan, guesthouses or hostels like this are hard to come by in Korea.) The owners are extremely kind and graciously helped us out with anything we needed, including umbrellas when we got caught in a rainstorm and walked in soaking wet, as well as hand drawn maps and weather updates. They are a younger married couple who have done quite a bit of world traveling themselves, therefore know exactly how to make everyone’s stay as convenient and comfortable as possible.
On our first full day in Sokcho, after enjoying free coffee and cheese toast provided by Afterglow, we headed out with a map to wander the city with no real agenda. It started out as a cloudy morning and turned into a super windy, rainy day which required a pit stop at 7-11 for a rain poncho. That didn’t stop us from having a blast exploring, however. We took the gaetbae boat to Abai Village, a spit of land between the East Sea and a harbor that was supposed to be temporary housing for North Korean refugees during the Korean War, but it turned permanent after the DMZ was established. It’s now filled with lots of tiny restaurants known for ojingeo sundae (a type of Korean sausage made with squid, rice or glass noodles and vegetables) so we stopped for lunch to try some.
After taking in views of the wild, stormy sea and exploring a few lighthouses, we decided to stop for an afternoon green tea latte and a game of cards to catch a break from the wind and rain. It was then that we noticed how many people were carrying the same box of fried chicken (yes, fried chicken is big in Korea). David and I decided we should probably figure out where these boxes were coming from because all the Korean tourists seemed to be carrying them. Thanks to our friend Google and my ability to read Hangul, we were able to locate the famous fried chicken place called Manseok Chicken and decided that’s what we’d have for dinner. To build up our appetite for this gigantic fried chicken feast, we did some more exploring and walked to the other side of the city and stumbled upon Sokcho Beach. Unfortunately, the weather was so bad at this point we were told we couldn’t even be on the beach. We got in a few rainy snapshots beforehand, however, and instead of enjoying a beer on the beach in our rain ponchos like planned, we found a nice park bench surrounded by trees, shielding us from the wind and the rain (there are no open container laws in Korea, by the way).
Magically, we woke up the next morning to a beautiful, cloudless day which was perfect for exploring Seoraksan National Park. Deserving of its own post, I’ll more about that later. In a nutshell, it was stunning and only a 30 minute bus ride from of Sokcho. Thankfully, our third and final day in Sokcho was also gorgeous and since our bus heading to our next destination didn’t leave until the afternoon, we had time to check out Sunrise Pavilion which we weren’t able to see before due to the bad weather. The water was the most amazing shade of aqua and the sunshine created a completely different view of the East Sea. It was the perfect way to end our stay in the cute port city before moving on to Gangneung.
Chuseok (추석) is one of Korea’s most important holidays and this year it will be celebrated September 7 – 10. It’s also known as Hangawi, which means the great middle of August/Autumn. Similar to America’s Thanksgiving, most Koreans return to their hometowns to gather with family, overeat and give thanks for their ancestors and bountiful harvest. Gifts are exchanged and traditional food and drink such as songpyeon (small rice cakes stuffed with a puree of sesame seeds, chestnuts and red beans) and rice wine are consumed.
Dating back about 2,000 years, legend has it that Chuseok began as a result of a weaving competition between two princesses in the Silla Dynasty. The fierce competition lasted for a month, ending on the 15th day of the 8th month on the lunar calendar during the full moon. The loser had to prepare a bountiful feast for the victors. It is also believed that Chuseok comes from the shamanistic practice of worshiping and giving thanks to their ancestors and the harvest moon.
Since the timing of Chuseok this year gives us a five day weekend (only two weeks into the new semester!) I am going to brave the holiday traffic and head south to Geoje Island with a friend who is also an English teacher in Eumseong. I hear it’s beautiful and the weather is supposed to be nice. Upon my return, I promise blog more frequently, as well as post in detail (with lots of photos) about my summer adventure. 🙂