Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Out and About in Gunsan
I would not call Gunsan a glamorous city.
Vibrant, livable, gritty, bustling, varied, and industrious would all be more accurate descriptions. I like Gunsan so far, though I have barely gotten acquainted with it. I have spent the last 2 weekends walking around the city orienting myself, since the only map I have is a cartoon map not to scale. The population is almost 300,000... and I can't quite decide if it feels bigger or smaller. It's big enough to have most of the things I could want or need, with a few exceptions: for English books or ethnic food (other than Chinese or Japanese) I would have to go to Seoul.
I'm on the outskirts of downtown in a more residential area, luckily not in a colony of 13-story mega apartments. Gunsan is on the coast, which was a huge draw for me, though the waterfront here is very developed. As far as I can tell, there aren't exactly parks on the water, or nice places to swim in the immediate vicinity. I think there are some beaches just a short bus ride to the north and south though. Not that I should be thinking about swimming right now, because it is still FREEZING here. The wind is ICY. It is supposed to snow again this weekend. I wish I had brought my down jacket. But spring should be on its way, and with it more outside exploration and cultural festivals. The City of Gunsan website is informative, has a promotional video, and is in English. The slogan of the city is "Dream Hub"... which sounds like a slightly awkward translation from something originally very succinct in Korean. On the website, they proclaim, "Gunsan, a City filled with Relaxation of Warm Sunshine and Hopeful Dream of Future." Sounds pretty good, right? If you ever want to find out more about the city, remember it is also spelled Kunsan, because in Korean, the G and K are essentially the same letter, pronounced as a cross between the two. Sort of like the B and V in Spanish. In linguistics they are called minimal pairs. But I digress.
One thing I love about the city is that there is a lot of green space. There is a huge park called Wolmeong which is actually several connected, wooded hills running like a spine through the middle of the city. There are miles and miles of trails, and you can access the park from innumerable trail heads in residential neighborhoods. From my apartment, I can jog to the park in about 5 minutes, and then pick one of many routes to run. Some of the paths are paved, some have a rubber track surface, and some are dirt trail. They are usually all pretty well-used, with masses of Korean speed-walkers in matching black warm-up workout suits passing me constantly if I'm walking. If I'm running it's a whole other matter, because almost no one else is running. I think I have seen 2 Korean runners in the last 2 weeks. So the park makes for an interesting juxtaposition of nature with the very urban. I took this photo below from the top of one of the hills, and it really shows this contrast.
There is one big lake in the park, probably about the size of Greenlake in Seattle. Despite all the people, it is a beautiful and tranquil place to go, and I'm grateful that it is so close by. The other day, I took a long walk across the city and found a nice picture frame in a recycle heap on the side of the road. I need wall decoration for my apartment so I took it... then ended up walking home through Wolmeong park. So there I was hiking up and down these hills with my 18"X18" ornate picture frame. It was ridiculous. I was getting fairly cold and tired as the sun went down behind the trees. Sometimes there are food vendors in the corner of the park and I saw people holding small paper cups. "Ooh, something warm to drink would be nice right now," I thought, walking up to one of the vendors. A man next to me was holding a cup and had just purchased the goods. I looked but it wasn't liquid.... I didn't know what it was. It looked like if a raisin and a beetle had a baby. He offered one to me to try, and I didn't want to be rude, so I ate it off the toothpick. It tasted like if mud and guts had a baby. Though I wanted to gag, I somehow remembered to ask in the only Korean I know "Igo muyayo?" which means "What is this?" and he responded "Pondigi!" The next day at work I asked my coworker what pondigi is, and she wrinkled her nose: "Silk-worm larva". Awesome. I vow to never again be adventurous when it comes to food. If it makes you think of a weird-looking baby, it probably is.
In good food news, last weekend I went out for dinner with some new English-speaking friends. Besides me, there were 3 Canadians teachers and one other American who lives here on the Kunsan Air Force Base. We had Samgyeopsol, probably my favorite Korean food. I've had it here before, but never with so much explanation and ceremony. My friend Kenton has been teaching in Korea for about 4 years, and knows the culture and language very well. His wife stayed home with their baby that night but she had made him promise to not do any teaching on his night off. He is such a wealth of knowledge though, I told him I wouldn't hold it against him if he taught me some stuff. Anyway, samgyeopsol is basically slices of grilled pork belly (we ordered a less fatty cut though) which you then cut into small pieces and place in lettuce leaf with chili/soybean paste, kimchee, grilled garlic, sesame bean sprouts, etc, then wrap into a bite-size ball and pop in your mouth. Part of the fun is that you cook it yourself at your own table. Sometimes they use real coals and sometimes it is an electric grill, but there is always a grease drain.
Traditionally, the youngest female at the table serves, so she is in charge of the meat. She has the tongs for flipping and scissors for cutting. Knowing the age of every one in your company is very important because it determines who serves who. And as in any major Korean meal, there are many side dishes, such as fish soup, miso soup, salad, pickled daikon, onion, hot peppers, rice. It's fun to eat because it's a whole process, and you are eating a lot of variety but small portions and slowly. They have a little paper ticket like at a sushi restaurant which stays on the table, and the server just puts a tick mark if you order more. Essentially, you are only ordering and paying for the number of pieces of meat you get- everything else comes with that meat. We also ordered bamboo wine and soju, the quintessentially Korean booze. It is a 20% alcohol fire-water originally made from sweet potato (I think?) and it is clear and mild like vodka. It was a Saturday night and we talked and ate and drank for hours. The waitstaff leaves the customers alone in their merriment unless you call them over. We needed more water and Kenton told me I had yell across the room for service. "I can't! I would feel so rude," I protested. He assured me it was normal, and I should say yogi-yo (polite form of "come here") loudly. So I did, and instantly 3 heads snapped over to see what we needed. Miraculous. Finally we decided to leave, and after this feast, the bill came to $45. For 5 of us. It is so nice to know you can have a great meal on a teacher's salary.
Then it was onto my first experience in a noraebang! "Bang" just means "room", so noraebang is a room where you sing, or a karaoke place. And not karaoke at a bar, for strangers to hear, like in the U.S. These are all private rooms for your group of friends only, and no alcohol is served. They had hundreds of English songs to rival any karaoke selection back home. We busted out everything from Nirvana to Will Smith to to 4 Non Blondes to Bon Jovi. Oddly enough, most of the music videos are tropical paradise scenes, or random boat races. I don't know why hula girls and palm trees would be fitting for a Queen song, but apparently here in Korea they are. I think Kenton and I both equally surprised each other when we found out the other person knew all the words to Origin of Love from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We did a lovely duet. And why the animal ears... I couldn't tell you. Apparently that's how Canadians in Korea roll.