Sunday, March 23, 2008

3/27/08 Korea Day 2

Its so hard to write when I am on a trip like this. I have so much going on, and no time to sit down and think about it. Then I strain to remember the details weeks later. Argh!

After a good night's rest, we were energized and thirsty for some heavy tourism. We headed straight for Gyeongbokgung, the Palace of Shining Happiness. In addition to all the happiness, the palace is notable for being the largest and most important palace built by the Joseon Dynasty, which ended with the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. First of all, from a aesthetic viewpoint, Korea's palaces and temples are a Mardi Gras street parade in comparison to those found in Japan. The paintwork found mostly on the underside of the roof of buildings is called dancheong(detailed description here). It uses red, blue, yellow, black, and white in patterns so intricate that a few steps backwards causes one's eyes to blend the colors together. See for yourself.

We arrived at the palace just in time to catch the tail end of a changing of the guard ceremony. The traditional soldiers standing watch are snappily dressed but purely ornamental. The buildings were beautiful, but the history of the place was a bit hard for me to get interested in.

Small bit of the changing of the guard.

I enjoyed getting my picture taken with the palace's colorful and unmoving sentries.

This very advanced little electronic audio guide was available for about 2 dollars. I was impressed enough to check out the company's website. The secret involves an invisible film on the paper that lets the reader know what to recite.

Having zero frame of reference in Korean history, the endless proper nouns and dates flowing from the audio guide were in danger of permanently putting me to sleep, but that certainly didn't take away from the beauty of the area.

Here's a nice little shot of the interior of one of the buildings.

Quite serene.

We then went scouting for an interesting spot to eat, and ended up stopping at a nice little place that specialized in oysters. Without the gift of literacy or even knowledge of food's names, our main criteria for quality restaurants has become the number of pictures on the menu, and the number of other patrons present. This place had both, and ended up being a solid choice.

First came out a variety of spicy vegetables, collectively called kimchi. They were unordered but much appreciated. A brave bite into one of the green peppers left me with a pronounced stinging that would stay with me for an hour.

The two things that we ordered were excellent. This one was some sort of ground up meat and vegetable sausage with some sliced pork on the side.

This was explained to us as Korean pizza. It featured oysters and octopus meat.

Koreans have done an excellent job in displaying their kindness. This large bowl of soup was given to us with no explanation other than "free".

Koreans predominantly use stainless steel chopsticks as opposed to the plastic, wooden, or bamboo varieties that populate Japan. The smooth surface of the sticks might prove challenging to all but the most tested chopstick master.

We took a long stroll though one of the other main markets in the city, namdaemun market. This market was a bit more to my liking, as it wasn't completely comprised of sketchy knock-off clothing. This market had a bit more touristy fare, and I could frequently hear Japanese from buyers and sellers alike.

Just like dongdaemun from the day before, namdaemun is a large gate that exists from the days when a large wall surrounded the city. Or, it was a large gate, I should say. Less than two weeks before we started our fantastic voyage, the gate was razed by an arsonist(article here). As "national treasure #1", it was a bit like the Statue of Liberty burning down the week before one's trip to New York.

The building's former location was covered by a high wall. I suspect that the barrier shielded the public from the psychological shock of seeing the beloved building in such a sorry state.

Perhaps the most unusual event for me on this day was tasting a little Korean snack called beondegi. Beondegi are the silkworm pupae I have seen boiling in the occasional market stall pot. My travel book had mentioned their existence, so I was on the look out for a taste test.

Looking down at the pot, I wondered if I could simply get a sample rather than buying this stuff. At only 2 dollars for a cup full, though, I figured I might as well make the investment.

Here's the cup full of the little edible beasts up close.

The smell coming from the cup was considerable and unwelcome. I picked one up fast and ate it before the aroma dampened my bravery.

One was all that I needed. These aren't knocking jelly beans off my favorite snack list any time soon.

Last but not least, some random interestings from the day.

While wandering around town, we spotted maybe the coolest post office building I have yet seen.

A patriotic-looking statue right in front of the post office.

Every day Koreans compete with the Japanese to decide who can smash the most humanity into one train car.

Several of these are present in every subway station. Seem to be some sort of gas masks. A nice effort, but I don't see how the 15 masks will be helpful to the thousands of us underground.

Closeup of the sign showing how to don the masks.

A nice little building hanging out with the skyscrapers.

We passed by the American embassy during our wanderings. For a nation that we are fairly closely allied with, I was surprised at the massive police presence. Maybe 20 armored police buses lined the streets adjacent to the barbwired walls of the complex. Authorities in a variety of uniforms patrolled the sidewalks whilst looking intimidating.

The flag peeking out from behind its cage.

I could see a large number of apparently off duty police hanging out in the parked buses.

Interesting artwork on display.

This store was dedicated solely to Japanese toy vending machines. Surprising business.

That's all folks! More soon.

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