When do we get to eat all the cherries?

We’ve all been here before–Saturday and Sunday so full of activity you need another weekend to recover from your weekend.  That’s where I am right now, somewhere on the cusp between HOLY CAFFEINE, BATMAN and crashing this Monday night.

This past weekend I went to the annual Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival and hiked a mountain covered in blooming azalea bushes.  Whoever thought that looking at flowers could be so exhausting!?

My weekend (sort of) began on Thursday when David–the aforementioned D of the non-hike Buddhism adventure–and I went to the Seoul Motor Show after getting off of work.  It was being held at Kintex, which is a giant expo center near Daewha here in Ilsan.  I’m not going to pretend I know anything about cars or particularly care about them, but we did see some pretty cool booths, including a model of the yellow car from Transformers flying through the air on thin wires, a three-wheeled aquatic concept car, custom BMWs with mother-of-pearl Korean art inlays, and a massive model car that was no joke around fifteen tall.  The best part though was all the Korean horndogs taking advantage of the show to not look at cars, but snap photo after photo of the stiletto-footed models draping themselves all over the cars in everything from mock racing gear to evening gowns.

Friday was work as usual then I went to a seminar on full contact sparring with our visiting grandmaster where I learned a staggering number of ways to break a person’s arm and overcame some serious language barriers to practice pinning my Korean-speaking partner.  I love tae kwon do but it’s honestly bewildering having to (pretend) fight someone who you can’t easily communicate with.

After that I had to gather my things for my weekend trip down south to Jinhae and the second largest island in Korea, Geoje-do, because I knew for a fact I would not be able to do a damn thing besides put on pants and brush my teeth when my alarm went off at 4:45 am.  The meet up point for everyone going on the trip organized by Seoul Hiking Group was Sinyongsan subway stop which is over an hour from Jeongbalsan and requires a transfer, meaning I needed to be on the first train towards Ogeum at 5:30.

Saturday morning came and I was surprisingly functional (I’ve long considered myself a morning person but this was pushing the limit) and timely getting onto the buses waiting to take us across the country and back in less than forty-eight hours.

Our first stop was the Upo Wetlands for an hour long lunch and stretch break.  I was more in the mood to just get where we were headed but that’s just part of traveling on a set itinerary with 90 other people.  The day was beautiful and I enjoyed seeing ducks and baby rabbits and  body of water that wasn’t the Hanyang River or Lake Park.  But come on, bring on the cherry blossoms!!

Hold up.

Just around the time we all started ooh-ing and aah-ing over the pink snowballs exploding across the branches of nearly every tree we saw, we hit traffic.  Really bad traffic that had us creeping into Jinhae for the 49th annual Jinhae Gunhagje until mid afternoon.

No bother though because once we were finally off the bus, I was enchanted.  Back home there is a cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C. but there isn’t the same culture developed around the inflorescence. 

If you’ve ever been in a home goods store or better yet, yoga studio, in suburban America, it’s safe to say that you’re familiar with the associations between cherry blossoms and (South) Asian culture.  It’s no joke, y’all.

In Japan they’re called sakura, but I live in Korea, so you’d best start thinking of them as bteokkot 벚꽃!!  It’s technically correct to call them sakura 사쿠라 in Korea, too, but my efforts to separate South Asian cultures in people’s minds are tireless.

The festival itself was well, a festival.  Tents filled with people hawking everything from crafts to tea to shoes to barbecue lined the streets flowing out from a central plaza where traditional Korean performances were taking place.

I posted about them before in my Lunar New Year entry but I adore watching the acrobatic dancers and drummers with ribbons and feathers attached to their hats.

Jill, David, and I spent hours just taking in the sights and a good bit of street food (my squid fanatacism is out of control) because we weren’t leaving for the island where we would be spending the night and hiking on Sunday until 8 pm.  The markets and food tents were full of oddities to the Western eye, but I’m saving those snapshots for another entry.  For now, just take a moment of zen to look at cherry blossoms and the festival lights.

The blossoms were stunning but once the sun went down and the lit gates and lanterns got added into the mix, I felt like I was in a fairyland.  Simply amazing.

Traffic out of Jinhae was congested and I closed my eyes feeling a bit of a headache creeping in.  David kept asking me if I was okay as the color slowly drained out of my face and I couldn’t even muster up excitement to talk about our upcoming trip to Bali in July as we wound through the dark mountainous island of Geoje-do on a lurching bus.  Not normally one to become carsick, I spent forty-five minutes desperately wishing we would just get to the pension where we were staying and promptly ran behind a stone wall to become ill once we stopped.  About an hour and a set of dry heaves later, I felt totally normal and was chatting outside the pension in the chilly sea breeze with others on the trip.  Go figure.

In case you’re unfamiliar, as I was, about what exactly a pension is, it’s more or less a hostel.  There were rooms of varying sizes, but all had no furniture, a small kitchenette with a sink and a camping stove, and heated floors, blankets, and small pillows in lieu of beds.  That might not sound all that great to you, dear reader, but I was cozy and warm as could be sharing the floor with David and a French couple named Emma and Peter who were studying at Seoul University for a semester.  We woke up the next morning around 6 am when the sun started pouring into our room and saw this:

Nice, right?  The island gets a little busier during tourist season but is pretty remote and where we were is void of streetlights.  Since we arrived around 10 pm, we had no awareness of what things looked like until the sun was up and I was happy to walk along the beach, very briefly get my feet wet with Jill, and munch on an apple and some sub-par baked goods until it was time to leave for the sea cliffs on a different part of the island.

All of us Seoul hikers boarded the buses for a ten minute ride to an area known as Windy Hill, complete with windmill and a museum with pegasus statues in front.

After this stunner of a view, it was onto the thing I was dreading–the hike.  Now, you might be wondering why in the hell I signed up for a trip with a hiking group if I have these kinds of feelings about hiking, but it’s less about the activity and more about being self conscious.  I’ve never been a very fast person nor have I found myself with great cardiovascular strength so I often feel embarrassed about getting winded and lagging behind everyone.  I’m trying to get over it though since 1) it’s not like I’m going to get teased by playground bullies and 2) I love long walks and nature so it stands to reason that I should be a hiker.  Right?

We started off up this KILLER incline on a narrow, crowded path that had me hating life but once we got up to the valley’s beginning and I got my first glimpse of the azalea adorned mountainside, I was all over that hike like white on rice.

Once we got a little closer I started hearing this clapping sort of noise that I couldn’t identify and then had a DUH moment when I saw these guys:

It’s pretty common for the natural scenic areas of Korea to be maintained by monks who live in either a temple you can visit or a small farm or hermitage you’ll spot along the way.  Alms rounds are part of daily life for the monks who will clap these wooden instruments and chant to passersby as sort of a gift back to you for your help.  It didn’t used to be that money was the accepted alm, but times have changed and I’m generally seen giving a few thousand won to the robed men and women I see during my mountain excursions.  An important thing to remember is to always ask before snapping a photo of any kind of religious act, even one as public seeming as this.  Seriously.

I stopped once I got into the thick of the azaleas, which was unlike anything I’ve seen even in azalea covered Virginia or the Carolinas.

Although I was on a fairly small island, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be able to see the ocean from atop the mountain.  I just sat on a boulder staring for about thirty minutes soaking up sunshine and breathing in clean air.

The drive back to Seoul was set to take five hours but we hit another terrible bit of traffic right outside of Gwang-ju and didn’t make it back to Seoul til two hours after we originally intended.  David and I got kicked off the subway at midnight when it shut down on our trek back to Ilsan and had a hell of a time trying to catch a cab for a ride that was only a few miles.  I didn’t make it back to my apartment til nearly 1 am and was a space cadet at work today for want of rest.  The great thing about a trip as wonderful as this weekend is you can just imagine yourself back there and it’s suddenly all okay.


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