Apr. 15th, 2017

Of course I moved to Korea in the middle of a winter cold snap (from Siberia guys, Siberia), so that cut out a good chunk of the things I could do. As much as I wanted to see all the magnificent temples, palaces and shrines, those things would have to wait for warmer weather. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that knows me that the first tourist related thing I did while in Korea was to go to a museum. Not just any museum, but The National Museum of Korea. I wanted to start off at the top of the ladder apparently. The museum is located right in Seoul, and only a hour or so subway ride away. After spending roughly three hours there, I can tell you that that museum totally deserves to be at the top of the ladder.

The National Museum of Korea covers the very long span of Korea’s history. Katie (my co-worker) and I went at a time that we could get an English tour. I’m glad we did, because the tour was a great one, though we did admittedly have to skip a lot of stuff on it. The museum itself is huge, and you could literally spend the whole day there, and maybe then you’d be able to see everything, so the length of the tour didn’t bother me, especially since we were more than welcome to wander at our leisure once it was finished. Our tour guide was great, and it was obvious that she was really passionate about Korean history. She focused mainly on early Korean history for the most part, and only mentioned modern things near the end and briefly. For me, the most fascinating aspects were how she explained Korean history within the framework of the major philosophical and religious thoughts that have developed, especially Buddhism and Confucianism (with a brief mention of Taoism and Catholicism as well). Ever since I took an East Asian religious studies class (which, sadly enough, never mentioned Korea), I’ve been interested by the two of them. Interestingly enough, the museum focused more on religious, cultural, philosophical and political developments in Korean history more than the history of warfare. Not completely of course, because in order to explain modern Korea you need to hear about the unification of the three kingdoms and how that happened (conquering of course), the various times Japan tried to, and eventually did, occupy Korea (that was mentioned a lot- they’re not too fond of the Japanese) and of course the Korean War. Yet I still found it interesting and wonderful that, instead of focusing on the big, flashy stuff, they focused at the core of Korean history- the intangible things that helped make Korea the one we know today.

The artefacts in that museum were astounding. I’ll admit that I was most impressed by the Buddhist artefacts, including a ten story pagoda that was absolutely amazing and the numerous statues of Buddha (there’s a room just for them). There was also an amazing replica of a tomb (regrettably located in modern North Korea, so it’s not something any of us will ever see in real life). The walls of the room were painted like those found in the real tomb, and they were magnificent works of art. Each wall had the sacred animal that represented that direction- a dragon, a phoenix, a tiger and a turtle (well…it’s supposed to be a turtle, but I don’t see the resemblance). After having them pointed out and explained by the guide, I began to see them everywhere. Not only in that museum, but in other places I’ve visited as well. Knowing what they mean has added a whole new layer to my appreciation of Korean history and art. Speaking of art, there was also a room that showcased calligraphy, mostly that done my famous calligraphers, and another that had a collection of Korean artwork. There were a number of paper fans that had scenes painted on them, and they were some of the most beautiful works of art I have ever seen. The pottery was also exquisite, my favourite being the very last item we were shown on the tour. It’s a deceptively simple piece called full moon pot. It’s plain and doesn’t look like anything special, but it’s a very particular and difficult pot to make. It needs to be absolutely perfect, otherwise it’ll break and be absolutely useless.

The National Museum of Korea was absolutely perfect, and an absolutely perfect thing\ for me to do for my first week in Korea. It was an amazing introduction to Korea and her history, and it made me realize right off the bat how spectacular this place I had moved to was. It wetted my appetite for more, and now I can’t get enough learning and knowledge about my home for the next year.



For my second weekend in Korea, I decided to do something a little less serious and a little more fun. Don’t get me wrong- The National Museum of Korea was amazing, and I had a blast, but I wanted to do something with little thought process involved. I wanted to do something where I could act like a little kid again. I found that something in the Coex mall, more specifically, I found it at the Coex mall aquarium.

Coex mall is a little like the West Edmonton mall. It’s not as big and it certainly doesn’t have as much, but it’s the same idea. On top of the aquarium, there’s also a huge Cineplex theatre and a Kimchi museum (Kimchi is pretty much the Korean national dish, and I truly do recommend it). I could have spent a good chuck of the day just wandering around the mall and shopping (and a few weekends later, I did go back just to shop). There were some really great stores there, including a few tourist ones that sold some beautiful souvenirs and tourist friendly merchandise, especially pottery. I also thanked my lucky stars that I found a really great bookstore, called Bandi & Luni’s (doesn’t that sound like it should be a store name in Harry Potter?) that has a spectacular foreign language selection, and some of the sections in have a better selection that the bookstores back in Canada. I never got to the Kimchi Museum, but I do plan to get back to it sometime.

That’s a little bit about the mall itself, but that wasn’t what we were there for. We were there to check out the aquarium, and it did not disappoint. For starters, who ever designed that aquarium should have won an award, because it was absolutely beautiful. It was designed so that every section went with a water based habitat theme- Amazon rainforest ecosystem, deep ocean ecosystem, etc. Not only was it divided by these themed habitats (which was a great way to get a feel for the animals you’re looking at), but they did their best to decorate the space to make you feel like you’re there. The Amazon rainforest area was spectacular and the sheer design and how well it was done blew my mind while I was walking through it. There was also a weird and wacky room where everyday and normal items had been turned into working fish tanks. Some of them were pretty funny, like the gold fish swimming around in a toilet bowl. Others were just so cool to see, like the old fashioned lamp post that had been turned into a tank. It was nonsensical and felt quite a bit Wonderland-like to me, but I have to admit that it was amusing, and the kids around me thought it was awesome and hilarious. The most amazing part, however, was the underwater tunnel. It’s nothing unique – lots of aquariums have them- but that didn’t make it any less awesome to walk through that long, curving hall with a glass ceiling and walls, and look up and around you and see all these sea animals going about their daily business as though you’re not even there. It made me feel like I was really in the ocean, getting to see all these animals up close and personal. It was looking at them from a new angle, and it was fun and fascinating to do.

The aquarium itself was awesome, but it wouldn’t have been anything without the animals there to see. It had animals from all over the world. Admittedly, there were a lot of them I had seen before or they just didn’t catch my attention, but that didn’t even come close to taking away from my enjoyment. The tropical fish and reef sections were spectacular, and I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched all the beautiful colours all in one place. I found both Nemo and Dory, and the child in me was jumping up and down. That child came out again at the end of the road, when we came to the penguin exhibit. The penguins were the warm water ones found in South America (Humbolt), and they were adorable. I love penguins so much, and I pretty much stood there and flailed as I watched them get fed. Those things were so cute! Other highlights included crabs that were bigger than my arm span, a hammerhead shark (a small one, to be sure, but a hammerhead nonetheless) and even a couple of manatees! I was almost as excited to see them as I was the penguins, albeit for different reasons (my mom loves manatees). Those don’t even begin to scratch the surface of what was there. The Coex aquarium was a great way to spend a lazy Saturday. It was light, fun and an all around good time.
M*A*S*H has been my favourite show for a long time, so I have a pretty big interest in the Korean War. It's that interested that made me really excited to visit the War Memorial of Korea. The museum isn't dedicated fully to the Korean War, but instead to the history of warfare in Korea in general, but, for my anyway, that was the highlight.

The first thing you see when you walk onto the grounds is this huge statue of two men hugging. It's impressive, but at first it's nothing too special. At first you don't know what it was, but that 'impressive' changes the moment you know. It's a statue of two brothers, who ended up on opposite sides during the Korean War. They were lost each other when the war broke out and North Korea invaded, and found each other again on the battlefield. One was fighting for the North, the other the South. This statue captures the moment they first found each other after all those years- on a battlefield, where they forgot the war and embraced. It's not just a beautiful story, but a poignant reminder that the Korean War wasn't as clear cut as one country invading another. It was Koreans versus Koreans, and families were separated and fought against each other- it all depended on what side of the line they fell on. That sense pervades throughout the museum, because there's never a section the villainizes the North like I thought they would (the Japanese, who attempted to and then colonized Korea brutally, on the other hand, is an entirely different story). Yes, they cover the atrocities and aggression that the North committed, but they don't hate them- they still see them as Koreans first, and they don't want to keep being divided. They want re-unification, and they care about the Koreans in the North. Whenever the death toll of the Korean War was mentioned, they always mentioned that there were countless other North Korean (and Chinese) who died.

The next thing you notice (well, not really, since there is another huge statue with amazing sculptures that is a monument to the Korean War) is the parking lot. I know that sounds kind of weird, but I'm telling you- The War Memorial of Korea has the best parking lot in existence. There old planes, tanks, missiles and even a ship. They're all real, and I think every modern aircraft the Korean air force has ever used is there. You can walk right up to them, and in the case of the ship, go through it. There's also really helpful plaques (in English as well as Korean) that gives you a brief cut comprehensive history of whatever piece of military equipment you' happen to be looking at.

Outside was cool, and when you get inside and begin to look around, you remember that yes, this is called the War Memorial for a reason. They have a room near the very beginning. It's dark but for the flickering of some candles and a small light shining on a open book in a case. That book has a list of names, and it names of people who died defending Korea. You can light those candles (and I did) in memory of the dead. It's touching and it makes you pause and think. That's not the only true memorial part. On the outside of the building, there's a long corridor. Lining the walls are large stone tablets. On those tablets, are the names of all the foreign allies that died during the Korean War. If you turn the corner, there's names of Korean soldiers who died, not just in the Korean War, but WWII as well. It's quiet, and your footsteps echo as you walk. There's a fresh white rose on every tablet, and it's obvious that great care is taken with maintaining this place. I'm not ashamed to admit that I teared up when I walked it. It's not only this area, but the museum in general, it's so easy to see that the Korean people are grateful to the allies who fought with them. There's the corridor, plus in the Korean War section there's a massive room devoted to the allies and their contributions.

We ended up catching a tour for the Korean War section of the museum (there was so much more than that to see). It was clear that our tour guide knew what he was talking about, and that he was passionate about telling the story of the Korean War. Near the end of the tour, he told us why. When the Korean War broke out, he was just a middle school aged kid. His hometown is in current day North Korea, maybe an hour or so away from the boarder. When the North invaded, his family tried to make it to the boarder to get out, like many other civilians who lived in the North. By the time they got to the boarder, the North Koreans had already fortified boarder too tightly, and they had no other option than to go back. They had to spend a month under communist rule before he and his family were able to get a lift in the back of an US envoy truck. It took them down to Seoul, where his family settled and has lived ever since. Had he been just a few years older, he would have been forcibly recruited into the North Korean army. If there was ever a moment that made the reality of not just the Korean War, but war in general, real for me, it was when that man thanked us for letting him tell us his story.

The Korean War section was powerful and by far the highlight for me, but the War Memorial had a lot more to offer than just that. We ended up looking at those other sections on our own, but everything was also explained in English, so it was easy to know what I was seeing. The ancient warfare section was interesting, especially the replica battle ships. I love old weapons, so seeing all the swords, bows, axes and the like was great. Seeing the development of these weapons throughout the three major ancient to medieval periods was super cool.

Out of all the things I've done so far, out of all the amazing things I've seen, The War Memorial of Korea is the thing I've loved most in Korea.

The next weekend, I really hadn't planned to do anything. I had planned to finish up my 'Christmas' shopping over at Coex and call it a weekend. That was the plan, and I was following it right up until the wire. Then, just as I was about to head back down to the subway, I realized that it was actually pretty mild out. Then I remembered that there was a temple pretty close to Coex mall, and then of course, I decided to go check out that temple before I headed home. So I decided last minute to make the trek to the temple. By trek I actually mean the five minute walk, though the whole time I kept pausing and asking myself if I was going the right way. I was walking down the street with all these skyscrapers beside me, and I just imagine that there could be a temple in the same place. Yet I kept walking until I found a sign that pointed the way, and I found it. Right in the middle of the busy city was this temple.

Bongeunsa temple was originally built in the period of time where the Joseon Dynasty, when the government supported Confucianism and was doing their best to suppress Buddhism. Bongeunsa became the head temple of the Seon sect of Buddhism, and it became a stepping stone to Buddhism being revived in Korea. In the more modern era, Bongeunsa was the place where the Buddhist youth movement began to take root. Today, it's still a working temple. There are still monks (though I didn't see any) that partake in the daily prayers and chants of Buddhism. That was the first thing that struck me- it was a working temple. I mean, I knew that intellectually going in, but I didn't realize it completely until I stood there and watched people - every day people from all walks of life, from men and women in business outfits to young adults in sweatpants and hoodies- perform their daily prayers. I've never seen Buddhist prayers or ceremonies outside of TV, and they were amazing. It's not that they're complex or flashy, but it's the simplicity that makes them rather beautiful. It's calming to watch, and there is beauty there.

It wasn't until the practice itself that was beautiful and calming. I was in the middle of the business district of Seoul, and if I looked over, I could see these huge buildings surrounding me, but it was like I was a world away from all that. I could still hear the traffic, but it was like I was hearing it from inside a bubble. I knew it was there, but it wasn't really touching me. I've only ever felt like that once before, and it was when I stood looking up close at the mountains for the first time. It was amazing and beautiful and so many other things that I can't describe.

It was beautiful, especially the buildings. They're so colourful and intricate, with painstaking designs. I didn't go inside to see any of the inside work (all of which is described and explained in English on signs outside each building), because people were praying, and I didn't feel I had the right to just intrude (I was welcome to, I just didn't feel comfortable doing it). There are some designated national treasures in some of those buildings, and I still want to go back and see them someday. I did see some things besides the buildings themselves. As is usual with a Buddhist temple, there was a giant Buddha statue. The statue Bongeunsa was one of the Maitreya Buddha, who is the future Buddha who will come and save sentient beings at the end of the lifetime of the Sakyamuni Buddha. There's also another statue, this one being Gwanseum-bosal, the Bodhisattva of Compassion by the water. At the bell pavilion, there's the four instruments of the dharma, which are rung before morning and evening services, in order to save all beings in the universe. I'm sure everyone will recognize the dharma bell, even if they have no idea what the other three are (dharma drum, cloud-shaped gong & a wooden fish) and what it is they're supposed to do.

It was a pretty grey day when I went, and it was in January, so everything was pretty blah overall when it came to scenery. I plan to go back in the spring or summer, when there's green and other colours besides brown and grey. I'll stay longer next time, maybe just sit for awhile. Next time it won't be rushed or last minute, but I'll go and just sit and just feel at peace.

The last thing I have to tell you about it isn't some big tourist attraction or heritage site. In fact, it has to go back to shopping. I've told you about Coex, which rocks, but as it turns out, that's not my favourite way to shop in Korea. My favourite way to shop in Korea is a place like Meongdong shopping district. It's one big area of connecting streets and side streets, lined with shops, and even better than those shops, are the vendors. The streets are lined with vendors, and those vendors are what makes Meongdong so awesome.

Here's a not-so-secret thing about me- I love cute socks. I love them to death, and whenever I see them I usually end up buying them. Korea, in general, seems to be the world capital for cute socks, but in Meongdong, sock (and hat, gloves and scarves) vendors are all over the place, with reasonably priced socks of all kinds. Seriously, thanks to Meongdong, I own Catwoman, Ironman, Hulk and Gangnam Style socks. I bought those all on one trip for under 10, 000 Won (10$ish).

It's not just the socks either- there's real stores there as well, and there are quite a few upscale and even some tourist ones. Shopping in Meongdong is fun because it kind of feels like a shopping adventure. I mean, when you go into a normal store, you pretty much know what you're going to see. Here? Here you have no idea what might pop up and surprise you, and there will be different things every time you go. I've been there twice, once with Katie and once by myself (I got on a bus and got off at the last stop, which just happened to be right near Meongdong), and found something new every time.

It's super crowded though. As in, at all times you are touching about four other people crowded, but I think that's just Korean (and most of Asia) thing really.
I'm pretty sure Mother Nature decided troll me one of the first weekends I got to Korea. Thursday and Friday were both in the positive double digits, and while it rained pretty bad on Friday, the warmer temperature was nice. Katie and I had made no plans for Saturday (which is a good thing, since she ended up sick and I ended up with a migraine), but decided Friday night that, if it was nice the next day, we'd pick something outside to do when we met up at the bus stop. We didn't do anything Saturday (I spent it curled up in a little ball of pain in my bed), so we moved our plan to Sunday. When I woke up on Sunday to check the weather, you couldn't believe my utter disappointment that it was minus three and calling for snow (that snow ended up coming as well). After a few days of being able to pull of wearing just a heavy sweater, it was depressing to have to bundle myself back into my winder jacket. I didn't stay disappointed for long.

Our indoors plan had been to head up to the Gwacheon National Science Museum. I was pretty ‘meh’ about the plan going in. I mean, I didn’t not want to go, and figured it would be pretty fun, but it wasn’t on my List of Things I Need To Do In Korea. I didn’t stay ‘meh’ for very long. Actually, the minute I saw the building –big and impressive, more so than I was expecting- the ‘meh’ went away.

The museum was divided up into different sections and covered a wide range of subjects, from natural history, aerospace and advanced technology. There was also a traditional science hall (complete with one of those balls that make your hair stand up on end!), though we didn’t make it to that section (the museum went and closed on us). The advanced science hall was really interesting because it covered such a wide range of topics- there was information about the evolution and future of the computer, an exhibit about ways to be eco-friendly – eco-friendly tech and living in a green world were two really interesting aspects of it. There was a section on how the body works and medical technology. The aerospace exhibit had a lot of replicas of planes and space equipment that kids would love. The natural history wing has an aquarium as well as a look at what the forest of Korea used to look like, complete with stuffed animals. The Korean technology and science section was fascinating, showing the technological and scientific achievements of the Korean people back when the western world was in the middle of the dark ages. An example is the replica of the biego, a flying machine that worked three hundred years before the first one in the west. There’s also a planetarium, which was good, but a lot was lost on me because the show was in Korean (obviously). That said, you really didn’t need to understand the language to know what was going on in the video about astronauts.

But honestly? There was one thing that I loved above all else about this place. There was one thing that made me squee in excitement like a child. There was one thing that this museum had that made it an amazing day. It had dinosaurs. Ever since I saw Jurassic Park when I was a kid, I have loved dinosaurs. Actually, scratch that- I loved dinosaurs before I ever saw Jurassic Park. For a very long time I was going to be a palaeontologist. Gwacheon National Science Museum had two versions of dinosaurs- outside there were the giant, to scale statues that were fun and perfect for photo opportunities. Inside, in the natural history section, there were fossils of all sorts, but (most importantly in my mind) there were quite a few dinosaur skeletons.

The best thing about the museum was that it was really hands on. There were a lot of interactive exhibits, and a lot of them were really interesting. I didn’t use a lot of them, instead letting the kids play, but the ones I did were fun. My favourite was the one for sound, where you could go into a small room and scream. A screen on the wall shows you how loud and how much energy your screams create. It was not only fun, but a great stress reliever as well.

The Gwacheon National Science Museum was a great way to spend a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon. I plan to go back and finish seeing the section I missed because of time constraints. I’m sure it’ll be just as fun as the rest of the museum was.
I remember when this book first came out, and I remember how everyone from Oprah to my teacher was raving about it. Everyone was going on about how amazing a memoir it was, about how horrifically it described addiction and rehab. I also remember when, not long after that, it came out that good chunks of the book weren't as true as Frey claimed. I hadn't read the book at that point, so I didn't feel the disappointment many readers did. Yet, only semi-fictional or not, my interest was piqued (controversy does that for me).

'A Million Little Pieces' begins with Frey (as a memoir, it is told from his point of view of course) waking up on an airplane, injured, and having no idea how either of those things happened. He ends up being checked into a rehab centre (he's been an alcoholic and crack addict for years). The books follows Frey through a very painful rehab, where he meets some really intriguing, equally messed up people, all of who show the reader that, unlike what we may think, there's no one 'type' of addict. They're all different, have different pasts and from different walks of life- there's no one stereotype that fits them all. There's Leonard, the Mafia boss who is far more wise than one would expect. There's Lilly, the damaged and doomed girl who fits into what the general public thinks of when they hear the word 'addict', but who is so much more than that, as shown in the kind of forbidden relationship Frey has with her. The books ends with Frey's release from rehab, with a (rather heartbreaking) post-script about what happened to the others we meet throughout the course of the book, once Frey was gone.

The main focus is on the rehab process and the mental state of someone going through it. It doesn't spare any gruesome detail. The part that still stands out to me was when Frey was required to have multiple root canals- all without anaesthesia, because he couldn't have any drugs in his system. I still shudder, thinking about that. Some of the events Frey writes about may be fabrications (or maybe just elaborations), but that doesn't stop it from being a powerful thing to read. Addiction is far flung from my reality, but reading 'A Million Little Pieces' gave me a painful, heartbreaking glimpse at it. It was like getting a slap in the face, one that has stayed with me all these years later. The lack of truth doesn't make the writing any less powerful.

'A Million Little Pieces' can be hard to read (not only because the gruesome details and heavy subject matter) because of its style. It's written with stream of consciousness and with random nouns capitalized. I will admit to finding that annoying, even if I get it (it's being told from the perspective of an addict- it being confusing and oddly written makes sense). Between that and the subject matter, this is a hard read. I won't lie and say I enjoyed 'A Million Little Pieces', but I am glad I read it.
Feb.09-11/13 marked the beginning of the Lunar New Year, called Seolnal. While the Lunar New Year is important here, it doesn't have the pomp and circumstance that our regular New Year has (they celebrate that as well). It's a big family thing, where everyone usually goes to their grandparent's house. It's a holiday that's really big on honouring ancestors. There's a special ceremony, usually at grave sites. It's not completely family orientated in that way, because there were quite a few places that were having weekend long, sampling of traditional events. One of those places, The Namsangol Hanok Village, was where Katie and I decided to spend our Sunday, the actual day of Seolnal.

A hanok village is a replica of traditional Korean family homes, usually including a number of old buildings relocated from other areas of Seoul. The rooms are set up like they would have been, though you can only look in. They're a lot like King's Landing up near Fredericton, albeit smaller (at least Namsangol is). There are actors in costume, and a tour is offered (even if we didn't take it this time). I love the architecture here, because it's so different from anything back home. The detail work, especially some of the art and detail work, is superb. I would have been content to just spend the day wandering around the village itself.

Another interesting fact about Namsangol Hanok Village. Seoul's official time capsule is buried there. It was buried back in 1994 to mark the 600th anniversary of Seoul being Seoul's capital city. That's a very long time for one city to be the capital. There aren't even cities that old in Canada. Another impressive number? The time capsule is going to be opened in a thousand years from when it was buried. Most cities aim for a hundred, but not Seoul. They are a hundred perfect sure that, not only will Seoul still be here in a thousand years, but it will still be as important as it is today.

For New Years, Namsangol was having some special events. There were a bunch of different things you could do, like making kites, painting tops and painting the traditional Korean drama masks. I painted a top, and would have liked to do a mask as well, but by that time, I was chilled to the bone and just wanted to get inside and get warm. There were also samples of food you could try, and there were games set up that you could try your hand at. There was a fortune teller there to tell fortunes for the new year, but unfortunately, it was only in Korean. I did, however, write out my New Year's wish. What you do is write your wish for the new year on a piece of coloured tissue paper. Then, you tie that piece of paper onto a length of rope set up like a fence.
We also caught some performances. The first was a drum show, while a random tiger character danced for awhile, which was neat. There was also some really talented women singing folk songs. I have no idea what the songs were about, but I really liked them.

Basically, I had a really great Seolnal my first year in Korea. It was a lot of fun despite the cold. Namsangol Hanok Village was the perfect place to spend it, and I certainly enjoyed my first Korean Lunar New Year.
I will fully admit that most of my time when I first got to Korea had been spent in and around the Seoul area. I love Seoul, and I am so lucky to live so close to it. I always have something to do, something to see and somewhere to go. That said, that means there's one aspect of Korea that I really haven't gotten to explore. That is the more rural areas of Korea, the natural settings that Korea has to offer. I've passed through a few times, but never really been able to slow down and explore. I know that Korea is a beautiful country, and I have been lucky to see a small corner of it.

Mt. Seobeag National Park was my first foray into the natural areas of Korea. It's about twoish hours south east of Seoul, in Danyang. It's a landscape of mountains, beautiful rivers, wonderful caves and interesting rocks. It was, above all else, a fantastic example of the natural beauty Korea has to offer. I went with a large travel group, and it was a wonderful trip.
Our journey began with a ferry ride. The ferry (two of them actually, as we had to transfer boats about half way there) took us for a ride on Chungju Lake. The scenery this ride provided was absolutely stunning. The water was blue, and (since it was still early March) there was still a thin coating of ice skimming the top of it in some parts). There were mountains on either side of the lake, stretching as far as I could see. Where one started, another took over. As we grew closer. the shoreline stopped being green hills and turned into rocky cliffs. The rock formations that made up those cliffs were interesting, and I watched them pass by from the deck of the ferry. Everything about the ferry ride was peaceful, calming and wonderful. The scenery reminded me of the setting of a historical or fantasy movie...and I felt like I was truly in one.

After the ferry docked, we got back on the bus and headed to the main feature of our trip. The main event, the thing that drew me in, was the chance to go caving in Kosu Cave. I love caves. I find them mysterious and fascinating, a perfect mix of interesting and just a little nit frightening. This cave didn't disappoint. Kosu Cave is a superb example of all the things that make caves so cool. It's estimated to be around 2 ~ 300 years old, with the lime formation where the cave formed about 400-500 million years old. That's one of the things I love about caves- how old they are, and how young they make me feel. In the caves, there were great examples of stalactites, stalagmites, flow stones, limestone domes, cave pearls, cave flowers/helectites and tufas. It was dark in there, despite the lights that they had set up. It seemed that everything was in shadow, and it was so very quiet, despite all the people milling about. Every sound echoed, especially the sound of dripping water. There was water everywhere, dripping from the ceiling and lying in pools along the floor. Sometimes the cave opened up into great caverns that I couldn't seen the top of, and others it was nothing more than a tunnel, where I could reach up and run my hand across the rocky ceiling. Thankfully, there was a clear, marked path that you can follow, including railings and stairs that take up you further and deeper into the caves. It took us about half an hour, walking at a normal pace, to come out the other side.

In the area outside the cave, where a few market buildings are set up, there's one other thing of interest. Someone has set up a sort of palace, made up with individual smooth stones, in between two of these buildings. It looks amazing and complicated, and actually reminded me of home. While they're not as extravagant, it reminded me of some of the stone structures I've seen built on the beaches of not only St. Martins, but in New Brunswick in general. It was a brief, enticing glance of home.

Mt. Seobeag National Park has a lot of amazing things, but it's most well known for the Danyangpalgyeong, or Eight Beautiful Scenes. Those scenes are intriguing geological formations, and I got a chance to see two of them. The first scene I got to see was Dodamsambong Peak, also known as the Three Strange Rocks. They're three huge rocks in the middle of the water, and the middle one (which is bigger than the other two) has a pagoda building on it. There is, of course, a story behind it. The rocks are said to be people. The middle rock is the husband, and the rock to his left the wife, who is turned away with her back to him. She's turned away because her husband brought a concubine into their life in order to get a son. She's the rock on his left. They're cool looking, but I have to admit that I found the story behind them the most interesting. Even the geology gets some drama in Korea.

The second scene I saw was within walking distance of the Three Strange Rocks. Admittedly, that walking distance is up a pretty steep hill (frankly, most things in Korea are) and down the other side of it, but if you're up for the exercise, you can go and see Seongmun Stone Gate. The stone gate is a hole in the wall, something that many people from St. Martins are familiar with (given the fact there's one in the harbour, after all), albeit on a gigantic scale. The gate is in the shape of a rainbow, and the coloured foliage on the top only added to that image. Legend has it that a alcohol and cigarette loving woman died there, and she became the rock. It's not as dramatic or soap opera-like as the story behind the Three Strange Rocks, but still pretty interesting nonetheless.

After spending some time looking at the rocks, it was time to head back home. It was time to leave the absolute beauty of Korea's nature and head back to the city. Chungju Lake and Kosu Cave showed me how beautiful the natural landscape of Korea could be. Dodamsamgbong Peak and Seongmun Stone Gate showed me how quirky the stories surrounding that nature could be. One thing that all four of them taught me, was that I needed to get out into it more.
If there's one thing that pretty much everyone knows, it's that North and South Korea don't have the best relationship. Even when there's an apparently amicable (or, at least, neutral) relationship going on, it's still very contentious. If you were watching the news a few months ago, you know said relationship has been a bit more contentious than normal. That said, I'm not here to talk about the international politics of North Korea (as fascinating as the topic is). I'm here to tell you all about the DMZ, and while I will go into some detail about the relationship between the north and the south, it'll (mostly) be in a more historical context.

The Demilitarized Zone was established at the end of the Korean War, back in 1953. It's an expansive, fairly underdeveloped area that covers either side of the boarder. There's a two mile no man's land that goes from the actual boarder to the edge of the DMZ. With the exception of two very small 'peace villages' (fifty people max) on each side, no one but military personal go into that zone. After those two miles, on the South Korean side anyway, it's not only a tourist (yet still underdeveloped compared to many other areas of the country) area or place where they is a high military zone, but there's also towns and a permanent population. If it wasn't for the military checkpoints, barbed wire and landmine signs, it'd be just like any other area of Korea I've visited. In fact, because the DMZ is so underdeveloped and tightly controlled, it functions as nature preserve. While it's not an official designation , a number of rare species have possibly found a home there. Some very rare animals, including the Korean tiger, amur leopard, Asiatic black bear and both the red-crowned and white-naped cranes, are thought to live in the DMZ.

Oh, and fun fact? If North Korea were ever to starting bombing South Korea, the DMZ is actually the safest place to be in Korea. The reason? A good chunk of the tourists who go to the DMZ are from China. North Korea isn't going to risk losing their one ally by killing their nationals.

There are two main areas of the DMZ (three, if you count the area in North Korea itself, the Joint Security Area and Panmunjom, but you can only get thee with one of the officially sanctioned tour groups). There is a lot of ground to cover, so you usually tackle one of those areas. The group I went with did both areas in one day. Because of the sheer amount I need to talk about, I'm going to divide my guide to the DMZ into two parts. This month I'll cover the The Jin Gok Area, and next I'll cover the Cheol Won Area.

We started out at the Freedom Bridge, where prisoners of war were traded at the end of the Korean War. The bridge is blocked by a wall at the end, but you can walk partway on the bridge. The area around the bridge was made up really nice, with a lovely sitting and walking area. There are also quite a few monuments in the area, including a monument to the veterans of the Korean War. The other really interesting monument was the Stones of Peace Wall. It is a glass encased wall that has individual stones placed on it. The stones are from battle fields all over the world. These stones aren't only from recent battles, but from as far back as the Second Punic War (a war fought between Rome and Carthage between 218-201 BCE). There was even a rock from Canada, though the explanation plaque said a civil war (I'm assuming it was one of the English/French battles from before Canada became Canada).

The Peace Bell is one of the other main attractions at the Freedom Bridge site. It's a traditional dharma bell in a traditional pagoda building that was erected at the end of the 20th century in hopes that the 21st would bring the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. That's something that the Korean people talk about a lot, and not only at the DMZ. All the tours I've taken have talked about the hope that one day Korea will be unified again.

The final thing to see at the Freedom Bridge is a rusted, beat up train with countless bullet holes. Back during the Korean War, it was a supply train that got ambushed by the Chinese communist forces (North Korea's allies). They shot it up pretty bad, and they eventually destroyed it when they stopped at a station. Quick history lesson: Back after the U.S joined the Korean War, it looked like it was going to be over fairly soon. They even managed to take land within North Korea. Just when it looked like it was getting over, North Korea revealed that it had allies of its own. China joined the war, and blindsided the other side. The war only got bloodier from there, and went on for another three years.

After the Freedom Bridge, we hopped back on the bus and headed to the Third Tunnel of Aggression. Back in 1974, the South Koreans noticed some suspicious things going on, namely steam rising from the ground and unusual seismic activity. Upon investigating, they found that North Korea had dug a tunnel under the boarder. That was the first incursion tunnel they found. Since then, they've found three more, the last in 1990. While they're not big enough to let big equipment pass through, but it would have allowed a full infantry division to get to Seoul, and to do it quickly, if war ever broke out again. North Korea claimed that they were mining tunnels, but the lack of coal pretty much proves they were lying through their teeth.

The tunnel we went to was Tunnel Three (there are four in all, but only Two, Three and Four are open to the public). This tunnel was discovered in 1978, and was found because a North Korean defector tipped them off. In fact, a North Korean defector often speaks to tour groups in the area, though it's only in the afternoon (we went in the morning, which means we missed him). Before entering the tunnel, we watched a video explaining the history of the aggression tunnels and then walked through a small museum on the same topic. I can't recommend enough to do them both. It gives the tunnel some much needed context and depth. The tunnel itself is brutal (I mean that in a physical sense). You walk down a very, very steep incline for a good five minutes before you get to the actual tunnel. Then, it's a long, low rock tunnel that goes on for another five minutes, where it reaches a dead end (the rest of the tunnel has been completely blocked off by the South Korean military). I literally had to walk hunched over for the entire passage, and if you're claustrophobic, the tunnel is not the place for you. It was interesting, don't get me wrong, but I don't think it was worth the nearly ten minute, steep. uphill hike back to the top. If you're not in fairly good shape, I don't recommend going down into the actual tunnel. For me anyway, the history behind the tunnel was much more interesting than the tunnel itself.

After Tunnel Three, we went to the Peace Observation Deck. The first thing you do is go inside and watch a quick film that explains all the highlights you can see from the deck. It's helpful, because otherwise you wouldn't know what you're looking at. There are binoculars, both on the inside and outside deck, which makes viewing easier. Here's where the fact that it was foggy really sucked. There are a ton of things to see, but I couldn't see any of them. Though I couldn't see any of the sights myself, the main things to see are interesting ones. You can, of course, see North Korea (mostly mountains), which is the main draw. You can also see the Peace Village, a couple of North Korean towns, and on a particularly clear day, see North Koreans going about their daily lives.

The Gaesung Industrial Complex, which is in the Kaesong Industrial Area, can also be seen from the tower. More context: It's an industrial complex built in 2003, when South Korean companies were given permission to build in the territory of North Korea, and hired both North and South Koreans (mostly North Koreans). It's cheap labour for the companies, and a source of foreign currency (the workers' wages are paid directly to the government). This is the complex that North Korea closed a few months back.
You can also see the North and South Korean flag poles, which is kind of a funny story. Back in the 80s, South Korea built a flag pole to fly their flag. Not to be outdone, North Korea went and built there own, making sure that it was taller. So tall, in fact, that it was the tallest in the world until 2010. That's just so comical that it boarders on ridiculous.
Believe me, it was very disappointing that I wasn't able to see any of these things. That said, it's an excuse to go back, so there's always that silver lining.

After the observation deck, we went to Dorsan Station. It's the train station that marks the end of the line of the rail road that goes into North Korea. Back in the 90s, there was a period called "The Sunshine Policies", which was the best relations between the north and sould had had in a long time. There was open dialogue and joint projects, such as Dorsan Station. Dorsan Station currently takes the South Korean workers to the industrial complex, but that's all it's used for. You can go inside the station, and even get a passport-like stamp to mark your visit, but the train itself is off limits. The railroad would have eventually connected with Seoul, and would have made both Koreas connected to the Transcontential Railway. If that had happened, a person could have hopped on a train in Seoul, and eventually got off in Portugal. Alas, it was not meant to be. Sadly, any and all Sunshine Policy ended resolutely when the U.S named North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil. As the current tense political situation shows, things have gone a bit down hill from there.

It's actually a little sad, standing in big, nearly empty Dorsan station. It's a symbol of what could have been. It represents a dream of a unified Korea, and it's a dream that fell through. It's possibilities that never came to pass like they should have, and I think the world is poorer for it.
So there you have it- part one of Nicole's Travel Guide to Korea's coverage of the DMZ.
The Cheol Won Area is where we went in the afternoon. Our first stop in this area was where we went for lunch. We took a lunch break in one of the smallish towns located in the DMZ. The restaurant was located next to a canyon. Despite the trek down, I went...and I'm glad I did. It was beautiful there, and more than that, it was calming. It was one of those places that you find by accident, that you wander into and feel a sense of peace. I sat down there for awhile. It's one of those places I could sit all day and not get bored. The fact that this peaceful place is in a place so haunted by past hostilities and with such a heavy military presence, made it so much more special. I wish I could have stayed there longer, and felt a genuine pang when I left.

After lunch, our first stop was Tunnel 2. As I mentioned last month, the tunnels are infiltration tunnels North Korea dug in order to secretly funnel troops to Seoul if war ever broke out again. Tunnel 2 was found in 1975, and it was the better of the two tunnels we went to. This one had actual soldiers guarding the entrance, and at the end of the tunnel. By the time we got to Tunnel 2, I was exhausted. I was under the impression it would be just like Tunnel 3, especially in how much effort it would take, so I'm sad to say I decided to not go down. This was a mistake, as I found out later. Not only was it not as physically taxing, and the tunnel itself was more impressive. It was the better of the two tunnels, and if you find yourself in the DMZ with time to see only one tunnel, I'd recommend Tunnel 2.

Right beside the Tunnel 2 site, there's a small room with military artefacts on display. Below that display room, there is a small store. At that store, you can buy actual North Korean money. There's numerous denominations, and all of them are suitably propaganda-like.

After Tunnel 2, we went to the Cheorwon Peace Observatory. If you remember from last month, we went to another observatory in the morning, and it was impossible to see anything through the fog. Thankfully, by the time we reached the observatory in the afternoon, the fog had cleared enough to actually see the highlights of the area. There aren't as many highlights in this area, but the ones there were still interesting.
The observatory is the northern most part of South Korea, and built on Bsekma Hill, a hill that changed hands thirty-four times in just ten days during the Korean War. It offers some spectacular views, and from there I could see North Korea! Admittedly, most of what you can see from the observatory is mountains, but there are still a few other things visible. The first is the Propaganda Village. It's been abandoned for a long time, but it was still interesting. If you haven't guessed it, it's a village the North Koreans set up, with propaganda slogans printed all over the place. You can also see a North Korean guard post, which unlike the Propaganda Village, is still in operation. Last, but not least, is the ruins of a palace from the Koguryo Period. The prince at the time moved his palace/capital during hostilities. The ruins are in the two mile no man's land. In fact, the boarder cuts right through the ruins, cutting them in half. The history lover in me finds it terrible, that this piece of history will be forever cut off from the world, because of where it happens to sit.

On a side note, out front of the observatory, there's a tank on display. It's pretty much a photo op area, and you are able to climb all over the thing.

After the observatory, we traveled to the White Horse Hill Memorial Monument. White Horse Hill was a key hill for strategist reasons during the Korean War. It was also the site of the bloodiest battle of the Korean War. The hill changed hands twenty four times in ten days, and so many shells fell that it completely changed the face of the mountain. It was renamed White Horse Hill because, from the air post-battle, it looked like a white horse lying down. The memorial site isn't on the actual White Horse Hill (though you can see the hill from the top), but on a hill close by.

The memorial is in three parts. The first is the actual memorial stone. The second is two museum display rooms. One of those rooms focuses on the general who won the battle, and the second on the three heroes of the battlefield. The two sides were at a complete stalemate because they'd run out of supplies. In a desperate move, the three soldiers snuck into the Chinese command with a grenade. They lost their lives and turned the tide of the battle. There's a bronze statue mounted on the wall, and it's made of actual shell casings that fell during the battle. There are also displays that hold artefacts, mostly weapons, that were found in the aftermath of the battle. After the display rooms, there are two giant twin pillars half way up the hill. At the top of the hill, the memorial concludes with a pavilion and a dharma bell (much like the Peace Bell I mentioned last month). From that pavilion, you can see White Horse Hill.

There was one last thing I saw during my day at the DMZ., and thankfully, it was something we could see from the comfort of the bus. It was an old, abandoned building. It was in complete disrepair, and looked like something out of a horror movie. That was my impression before I learned what the building actually was. It's an old North Korean administration building from the Korean War. It's a place where they held and tortured their prisoners. I'm glad we didn't stop, and not just because I was tired. A building like that, where that much pain, hopelessness and horror happened? I want to be nowhere near it. It was, I think, the best thing to see last- the last reminder about what all of what he had seen during the day was actually was. It was all about war, and here was a reminder of how horrible war actually is.

There you have it. The two entry saga of the DMZ has come to a close. I'll see you next month with an all new adventure.
I have to admit that this is not a book I ever would have picked out myself. It’s a young adult fiction novel that has bats as the main characters. Yes- bats. I don’t know what possessed Mom to look at “Silverwing” let alone to pick it up as a gift for me, but I’m very glad she did.

“Silverwing” tells the story of Shade, a newborn runt of a Silverwing bat. He’s one of those kids that just won’t take ‘because’ as an answer. The question in this case is why bats are forbidden to see the sun (to sum it up: a long time ago there was a war between the birds and the beasts, and the bats decided to play Switzerland and stay neutral. When the war ended they were punished by not being allowed to see the sun on pain of death). Shade of course catches a glimpse of it and (again of course) is caught doing it. Instead of turning him over to be killed, his clan takes the consequence- the complete destruction of their nesting area. They’re forced to leave for their hibernation site earlier and Shade gets separated from the group on the journey. Now he has to find a way to get there without being killed along the way (which happens more than you’d expect actually). He picks up

Marina, a Redwing bat who was chased out of her clan and Goth and Throbb, two tropical bats who double as psychopaths. All three were captured by humans and were given mysterious metal bands that nobody knows the purpose of, and adds a level of mystery to the classic journey story.

Yes, the main characters are bats. Those bats happen to be written better than quite a few human characters I’ve read. Oppel gives these bats personality. He gives them history, culture and all of those things you really don’t think would go together with bats. More impressively, he makes two distinct bat cultures (Shade’s vs. Goth’s) and then takes it a step further by making distinctive cultures for other animals, most obviously the rats and the owls.

I was honestly surprised that I enjoyed this book, especially that I enjoyed it as much as I did. It might not sound like a book you’d pick up on your own, but I’m hoping you’ll take my word for it and give “Silverwing” a try.
"Bitten" is in the first book in Kelley's Armstrong's thirteen-ish book series entitled "Women of the Otherworld". I didn't actually read this book first. I came across the third book and loved it, so I went back to the beginning of the series. I'm so very glad I did, because "Women of the Otherworld" quickly became my favourite paranormal book series ever.

"Bitten" is a story about werewolves. In particular, the only female werewolf in the world. Elena was turned unwillingly by her boyfriend Clay a number of years ago, and eventually left the North American Werewolf Pack. Elena wants to live as a normal person, and she's doing her best to do just that...but, of course, it's not going so well. When there's a problem with the pack (the governing body of werewolves in North America), Elena goes back to help. There's a problem with 'mutts', werewolves not in the pack, killing humans. It's the pack's responsibility to eliminate the man eating mutts, because they risk revealing the werewolves to the world. Elena gets caught up in the investigation, and starts realizing that that normal life might not be what she wants after all.

"Bitten" shines when it comes to portraying conflict. I don't mean external conflict (though the plot is excellent as well), but the internal ones. Elena is a mess of contradictions. She's torn between the wolf and the human in her. She's torn between the family she has with the pack, and the desire to be normal. She's torn between the love she feels for the man who turned her into a werewolf, and the betrayal that he did it without her consent. She's torn between the life she tells herself she wants and the one where she's truly accepted.

"Bitten" has a great mythology, an interesting plot and characters, a great love story and a wonderful story dynamic. "Bitten" is a spectacular read, and one every lover of paranormal fiction needs to read.
With most of my entries into my awesome LJ blog, I focus my reviews on one specific place, be it museum, attraction or historical location. With only a few exceptions, most of these places have been located in Seoul, South Korea's capital city. Since I focused on specific places, I haven't really gotten to talk about Seoul itself. Besides the big things Seoul has to offer, there are a number smaller sights, which, alas, aren't enough to fill a travel guide on their own. That's why, for the next two entries, I've decided to write about the interesting, miscellaneous sights that Seoul has to offer.

Seoul is a city that has over 2,000 years of history behind it. It was founded in 18 BCE during the Three Kingdoms Period, by the Baekje Kingdom. Seoul has gone through a couple different names (it officially became 'Seoul' after the liberation from Japan in 1945, but it's been the capital of Korea for a long, long time). In more recent times, Seoul was taken and re-taken a number of times during the Korean War. That left the city heavily damaged, an in the post-war years, Seoul went through a major phase of reconstruction and modernization. Today, Seoul is a modern technological hub, with a population of 10 million people, making it the largest city proper in the developed world. When taking in the outlying areas that make up the Seoul Capital Area (the city of Incheon and the rest of Gyeonggi Province), it's the world's second largest metropolitan area (second only to Tokyo) with over 25.6 million people. It also, much to my delight, has the best public transportation system I have ever had the pleasure to ride on.

Seoul is an awesome city, and I'm lucky that I live so close (about a twenty-thirty minute subway ride to down town). There's always something to do, be it large or small. I'm here to tell you about some of the small stuff. This is the stuff that's great for an afternoon of wandering, pretty much free of charge.

The first of those things is the old Seoul Station. The old Seoul station, originally built in 1925 for the railway (and heavily reconstructed in the wake of the Korean War), hasn't been used as an actual station since 2004. A new, modern station was built, and old Seoul Station remained closed until 2011, when it opened again as a Culture Station Seoul 284. Seoul Station was turned into a cultural space, with the first floor for performances, exhibitions and events, and the second a hall for various events or venues. When I went to Seoul Station, there were two different exhibits set up in the building. The smaller exhibit was all about camping, and looked a lot like the set up pf an outdoors department of a sport's store. It was meant to encourage Seoulites to go out and embrace nature. The second exhibit was on collectables. That, to me (as an avid collector) was for more interesting. There were collections of many kinds: toys, dolls, Lego, coke products...you name it. There were Wizard of Oz nutcrackers that I was tempted to make off with, and a large collection of coffee mugs from all over the world. Guess what? Calgary was amongst them!

While both of those exhibits would be changed by now, I'm sure there are equally interesting ones that have taken their place. The exhibits in Seoul Station aren't the only interesting thing about it. The building itself is also unique. It's a brick building with a domed roof, which totally stands out here in Korea. The more detailed design is even more interesting. In fact, old Seoul Station reminds me of an old brick building I saw in New York City. It was definitely worth seeing.

Within walking distance of Seoul Station is the next stop on out miscellaneous list. The next place up for viewing is the Sungnyemun Gate, which is more commonly known as Namdaemun. It's name literally translates into Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, and it's one of the eight gates of the fortress wall that used to surround Seoul. Sungnyemun was one of the main gates (The Great Southern Gate), and it was used to greet emissaries, control access to the city and keep tigers out (and yes, that was a serious problem). The gate was originally built in 1398, and reconstructed a few times since then (including after a fire in 2008). The fortress walls around Seoul may be gone (for the most part), and many of the gates as well, but Sungnyemun still stands there in all its glory. The bottom of the gate is stone, but the top is a colourful, wooden pagoda style that I have come to adore. It looks like the top half of a temple or palace. Though it's nothing more than a free standing structure now, it's easy to imagine what it must have been like years ago, when it was one of the few gateways into the city of Seoul.

Last, but not least, is Unhyeoung Palace. First things first: when I say palace, I don't mean the western style palaces, I don't mean the western style palaces that first come to mind. Palaces here are huge living complexes, not massive, elaborate, singular buildings. Unhyeoung Palace is a very small compound, and I do question why exactly 'palace' is in the title. Unhyeoung was the private residence of Heungseon Daewongun, the father of Emperor Gojong, the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty. He changed the name of the dynasty in 1897, which made him the first king of the Korean Empire. More popularly known as the Regent, Heungseon Daewongun pretty much ran the country while his son was officially king. The Regent ruled the country from this residence, including a tight closed door policy which attempted to keep Korea isolated from the rest of the world.

Another interesting historical figure once lived here, and that was Empress Myeongseong. More commonly known as Empress Min, she was the wife of Emperor Gojong. She was assassinated in 1895 by the Japanese, which was one more nail in the coffin of Korea-Japan relations.

The palace is built in the traditional style, and looked just the hanok village I've written about before. It was open for the most part, but still had four sections. The first was Sujiksa, which was the home of the servants and guards who worked at the palace. Second was Noandang, which was the area for men (men and women had completely separate living spaces in traditional Korea). This was the place where the Regent went over state affairs. The third was Norakdang, which is the largest structure in Unhyeoung. This was the most publicplace, where affairs such as the royal wedding, like the one between Gojong and Myeongseong, were planned. The last was Irodang, which was the women's quarters and family area. There is also an exhibition hall, where artefacts from the Joseon Dynasty are displayed.

I found Unhyeoung Palace quite by accident, while I was wandering around killing time. I'm glad I found it, because it was a slice of Korean history that I wasn't expecting. It was just as interesting but not as crowded as the bigger palaces by a long shot. Plus, it was super cheap, at only 3,000 won (just under three dollars Canadian). It was a great way to spend half an hour.

So there you have it. Three things you can enjoy in Seoul if you're looking to avoid the bigger land marks, or just want a day of leisurely exploration.
Welcome to the miscellaneous sights of Seoul, version the second. Here, I give you three more smaller, yet still extremely interesting things that you can see while you're enjoying Korea's capital city. Like before, they are free or close to it and easy.

First up, is another gate. Last month, you read about Namdaemun/Sungnyemun Gate, which is the southern gate of the city. This month, I'm going to take you on a journey to Heunginijium Gate, more commonly known as Dongdaemun Gate. When Seoul was once surrounded by a wall, it functioned as the eastern gateway into the city. Heunginijium literally translates to "The Gate of the Rising Benevolence". It was first built in 1398, and the current structure is the one that was rebuilt in 1869. Dongdaemun Gate is a lot like Namdaemun Gate. There are, however, a few differences. Those differences are structural. While the wooden pagoda part is the same, the stone base is different. Unlike Namdaemun, Dongdaemun Gate loops around, almost making it a circular way. It's not much of a difference, but it's enough to make both gates must sees when visiting Seoul.

Another reason this gate is a must visit, is because it's right beside the Dongdaemun Market. It's one of the biggest shopping districts in Seoul. It's divided into four sections and a shopping town. There's twenty-six shopping malls and thirty thousand speciality shops. It was traditionally a night market, but is now open from roughly 10:30 am to 5 am. It's an interesting maze to shop in, that's for sure, and if there's something you need, you'll probably find it there.

For our next stop, we're going to jump over to the Seoul City Hall area. Here, we'll find our other two sights. The first is Cheonggyecheon Stream. Cheonggyecheon is considered one of the great sights of Seoul, and I completely understand why. The stream is gorgeous, with a beautiful water fountain that leads to a crystal clear waterfall. The stream has stepping stones across it, ones that are big enough that you can step across them to cross the stream. There's pathways on both sides, and a few bridges that run over the stream. There's even a spot where, if you throw some coins into it, you get to make a wish. It's a beautiful and wonderful spot to spend a relaxing day.
The thing that makes this stream so lovely is that it's in the middle of downtown Seoul, and that it's only there because of, at the time, much criticized beautification efforts. Until 2005, Cheonggyecheon was nothing more than a neglected, hidden waterway. Now, it's considered a huge success in beautification. Cheonggyecheon Plaza is also used as a cultural space, where events and festivals are held year round. One of those festivals is the Lotus Lantern Festival, which you may remember I described as "the most amazing thing I've done in Korea". The giant lanterns? They light them up and guide them down the stream on rafts. I didn't get to see that regrettably, but I'm looking forward to it for next year.

Not even ten minutes away from Cheonggyecheon Stream, is our last stop for this month. That stop is Gwanghwamun Square. The square has two of the most famous statues in Seoul, if not in South Korea as a whole. The first of those statues is the statue of Admiral Yi. It's a pretty imposing statue, with a fierce looking man, one hand holding a weapon, the other on his hip, standing there, almost daring you to come back at him. It represents protection and patriotism, and it completely manages to portray that. Admiral Yi Sun-Sin was a Korean naval commander who is famed for his victories against the Japanese when they tried to invade Korea during the 1500s. During the Battle of Myeongnyang, Japanese ships versus Korean ships was 333 to 13. It was a last stand, with only his small fleet standing in the way of the Japanese entering Seoul. In one of the most astounding military defeats in history, Admiral Yi beat back the Japanese. He died in 1598, at the battle where the Japanese army was on the brink of being expelled from Korea. He's one of the few admirals in history who remained undefeated for the amount of battles he was in. In front of the Admiral's statue, there's a fountain/water show that represents his sixty-three victories.

It's not a wonder that the Koreans decided to put up a statue of the man. It's also not a surprise of the man. It's also not a surprise that they erected a second statue, one depicting King Sejong the Great. This statue is a benevolent looking man sitting on a throne, an open book in one hand and the other gesturing openly. The statue is a celebration of his achievements, which still have an important impact on Korea today. While Sejong had many accomplishments, it was his invention of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, that made him so important to Korean culture. He wanted something other than Chinese characters, something that all his people could use. Hangeul isn't the only thing he invented- the celestial globe, a rain gauge and a sundial were all his inventions, and they are all in front of the statue. Behind it, there is an exhibition hall called "Sejong's Story". King Sejong is a crucial figure in Korean history, so I completely recommend the exhibition as a way to learn all that you can about him.
There you have it! The end of my two entry extravaganza of miscellaneous Seoul.
With this particular review I’ve decided to dive into the realm of ‘young adult’ (AKA teen) fiction, which happens to be unfairly disregarded and severely underrated (in my opinion, some of the best books I’ve ever read are in this genre). But anyway, ‘Uglies’ by Scott Westerfeld is my choice because not only is it a book for the young, but the themes are ones that have an impact on all ages.

In a futuristic world –one that has been rebuilt after we go and destroy ours (a second, not so subtle theme also breached in the book)- when one turns sixteen, they are given an operation that makes them ‘pretty’, which is a generic and conformist ideal of beauty (though Westerfeld never exactly describes what exactly what that ideal beauty is, but leaves it up in the air). With the operation they get to go one to a ‘perfect’ life of fun and party. Of course, it wouldn’t be a good story if things were exactly as they seemed; Tally has waited her whole life to be pretty, but when a friend runs away to avoid the operation, Tally gets thrown into a scheme that would force all the runaways (the ones who want to stay ‘ugly’) to be turned, and for very devious reasons.

‘Uglies’ very blatantly forces you to look over society’s idea of what beautiful is, and how far we’ll go to achieve it. Are we willing to completely change ourselves? To betray people we love? What aren’t we willing to do? While those questions are strong and forceful, the book doesn’t come out sounding overbearing. It’s an easy read despite the deep themes, and thankfully isn’t all that preachy either. Young adult or not, everyone who reads it should be able to enjoy ‘Uglies’ for what is; an awesome story.
So far, I've used this blog to tell you about all the amazing places you can see and go to in Korea. This month, I'm going to do something a little different. This month, I'm going to tell you not about a place, but an event. It's an event that's just as spectacular as any of the places I've gone. In fact, it's my favourite thing I've done during my time in Korea. That event is the Lotus Lantern Festival.

The Lotus Lantern Festival is held on the weekend before Buddha's birthday (which is a national holiday in Korea). Technically, it starts about a month or so before that, when the cities hang paper lanterns along the street, but the big event is just before Buddha's birthday.

The festival kicked off on Friday, with traditional paper lanterns being displayed all day both at Jogyesa and Bongeunsa temples and the Cheonggyecheon stream area. The lantern displays stayed up all weekend, but the festival events started on Saturday. I decided to start the Lotus Lantern Festival by going to Bongeunsa temple (the one I told you about last month) to see the displays.

The first thing you need to understand is that these lanterns aren't the small, hand held ones you're thinking of (though, there are enough of those as well). The paper lanterns that impressed me the most were float sized, gigantic and beautifully designed traditional lanterns. They were beautiful and I loved them. I, for one, wasn't expecting them to be so cool. The temple had lanterns hanging from the sky and lanterns decorating the paths through the temple. The lanterns were in all sorts of shapes, depicting many different things. There were traditional Buddhist symbols, animals (especially those important to the symbolism and history of Korea, such as tigers and turtles). On top of the displays, the temple was offering free shuttle services to Dongdaemun Gate in Seoul, where the lantern parade was starting later that night. The shuttle bus assured that we got a front row seat for the parade, so I highly recommend taking advantage of it. They also gave everyone a rod with two small lanterns attached to hold during the parade. Once it got dark, volunteers came and lit the lanterns for the people who had them.
There was one downside to taking the shuttle bus, and that was that I missed the first event, the opening ceremony. The opening ceremony consists of a few different parts. There is an awards ceremony for the lanterns, followed by an opening ceremony dance. It mainly consists of a Buddhist cheer rally and, in true Buddhist fashion, a dharma ceremony. I'm sad I missed it, and plan to make sure I catch it next year, but the pay off for missing it was more than okay.

The main event of the Lotus Lantern Festival is the Saturday night Lotus Lantern Parade. As mentioned earlier, I got a front row seat near the very beginning of the parade route. The parade itself is fairly long, from Dongdaemun Gate or Jogyesa temple, where there was a giant viewing screed broadcasting the parade and MCs giving commentary in both Korean and English. The parade began with an imitation of the old royal guard, followed by drummers and dancers, all putting aspects of Korean culture for all to see. There were many people who walked in the parade. Some of them were performers, using their lanterns in their dances, others were Buddhist monks. There were large groups, representing everything from universities, arts groups and temples. In true parade fashion, there were walkers handing out things to the crowd, be it candy or small lotus flower paper lanterns (which I was lucky enough to get).

All of that was interesting, but it wasn't what made the parade the most beautiful parade I ever seen. What did that, were the float sized lanterns I mentioned earlier. There were all these giant lanterns, lit up in the night, with hundreds of other, smaller lanterns lining the street where the spectators held them. Most of the lanterns were designed in the traditional Buddhist fashion, and if you've seen any Buddhist art, you know hoe absolutely beautiful it is. Other lanterns -a few looked more than a little anime-like-, not so much. There were lanterns of the many styles of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas (Bodhisattvas are anyone who, motivated by great compassion, wishes to attain and gains enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings. It's one of the four sublime states a human being can achieve), and scenes that included them. My favourite of those types of lanterns was one of the Buddha meditating in the centre of the lotus flower (the lotus flower is one of the most important symbols in Buddhism). There were also many lanterns that used Buddhist symbols, including quite a few that had flashing lights. Important symbols of Korea in general, mostly animals but kings as well, were made into lanterns for the parade. The animal floats were my favourite in the parade- there were a number of fire breathing dragons, elephants who trumpeted and a phoenix who changed colour and mimicked flight. It was amazing what people had managed to turn paper lanterns into, magic even.

Here's where I tell you why I didn't mind missing out on the opening ceremony. I previously mentioned that temples had members walking in the parade, and each of them had a design of lantern particular to their temple. I had received one of the lanterns from Bongeunsa, and when the group from Bongeunsa passed us about a quarter of the way through the parade, they asked everyone with those lanterns to join in. Me, being me, couldn't resist. So yes, I walked in a parade in the capital of South Korea. That was a defining moment for me, when I looked around me and realized just how amazing my life was. It kind of took my breath away.
After the parade finished, there was a post-parade ceremony. This was another event I ended up missing, this time because, I had gone, I never would have made it back home before the subway closed. Much like the opening ceremony, there were performances, consisting of traditional art, music, dancers and singers. The main event of the night, however, is the flower rain. That is when a record number of flower petal shaped paper fall from the night sky.

The next day kicked off with day long cultural events in the area around Jogyesa temple. This is actually a two pronged event. The first is that both sides of the street are lined with tents. Those tents are filled with activities (many of them free, or at least extremely cheap), information, samples and even more. The main focus is Buddhism, but a fair bit was about Korea as well. Every section of Asian Buddhism had set up something, and I learned a lot. These tents had information about their particular branch of Buddhism, as well as displays. Monks were the ones who gave that information. Many of the activities were craft orientated, the main one being making paper flowers. You could sample food, have your face pained and even try on a traditional Korean wedding dress. I tried on traditional clothing, made a woodblock painting, decorated a mask, learned how to sit in and meditate in the lotus position and even tried green tea for the first time. Those were only a drop in the bucket of what was available. The events were open from 12-6, and I got there at four, assuming I'd have more than enough time to see everything. I was wrong- I could have used another two hours at least.
While all of those tents were open, there are cultural performances going in the centre of the area. Like the tents, the performances encompass all aspects and types of Buddhism. There were folk games, Tibetan chanting, monastic dancing, Korean tight-rope walking, the crane dance, Korean folk music and dancing, Zen martial arts, percussion instruments and dancing. Many national sects of Buddhism put on performances, including Mongolia, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. There was a wide variety, and something for everyone.

Later that night, there was a smaller lantern parade, one that started in Insa-dong (the tourism area). None of the large lanterns were there, but there were still quite a few, and many of the performing groups were in the encore parade. It's smaller, but it actually feels more intimate. Insa-dong is a very narrow street and, if I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched everything as is passed. In general, Insa-dong has a great atmosphere, and the lanterns only doubled it.

The parade length is also shorter, only about a twenty minute walk back to Jogyesa. Once there, the final ceremony began. Like always, there were performances, both traditional and not so much. The non-traditional performances, done by the dance groups that just walked in the parade, each did a dance, and I kind of felt like I was watching a K-Pop concert. There was a lot of energy and happiness, and it was a lot of fun.

The best part, however, came at the end. Once the last of the dance groups danced, the guard rails were taken away, and the performance area was opened up. From there, the MC invited everyone -and I do mean everyone- to join the performers for a group dance. In the beginning, it was a lot like a game of Just Dance, where you follow the moves of the dancers on stage. Eventually though, it turned into a version of the locomotion, with human chains twisting and turning all over the dance floor. There were all kinds of people, from all over the world, but through the music -through the dancing- we all connected. We high fived as out line passed another, we paused to let people who wanted to dance in, we laughed together and felt the unadulterated freedom and joy of that single moment. I have never felt that much camaraderie with so many people I will never met.
After a good fifteen minutes, the dancing ended, as did this year's Lotus Lantern Festival. Hours later, I was still smiling. Now, months later, I'm still animated whenever I get to tell someone about it. I think, no matter what else I do, it will be one of my defining moments in Korea. So, if you're coming to Korea and can plan your trip to happen over the Lotus Lantern Festival, I highly, highly recommend it.
Even for those who find history boring will admit that Henry VIII and his six wives is quite the intriguing tale. Out of all those wives, Anne Boleyn is by far the most famous…but did you know that even before Anne was in the picture, Henry had an affair with her sister Mary? Well, that where Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ comes in. Being the king’s mistress was a well sought after position, and with a nudge (more like a forceful push) from her family, Mary ends up getting the title. Their affair only lasts so long before his attention begins to wane…and then eventually land on Anne. Anyone else would be satisfied with mistress, but Anne wants it all…she wants to be queen. Mary, who comes off as the most innocent in the whole family, gets entangled in the schemes and betrayals that get her sister to the throne…and then the desperate attempt to keep it. Part of the charm of the book is that it is so historically correct without being dull, which can be a hard thing to find when encountering historical fiction based on real people. Gregory always manages to portray most of the characters in a good light, despite all the back stabbing, lying and betraying they end up doing. But it is the relationship between Anne and Mary that make the story so compelling; they are polar opposites in everyway, and at times completely jealous of each other, but yet they remain close beyond measure. This closeness combined with the resentment and jealously that lurk just beneath the surface make this semi- tragic plot line team with life. Even those who profess to hate history will be unable to resist the brilliance of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ and will not be able to help becoming completely enthralled.
Vampires are big at the moment. In all honestly vampires have been popular since Bram Stoker gave us all the masterpiece that is Dracula, and said popularity has only gotten bigger, especially in the last decade or so (I know people remember the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was still on). But let’s face it…Twilight brought it all to a whole new level. Since I’ve loved vampires for forever and I’ve already reviewed Twilight, I’ve decided to review another young adult vampire novel, which I personally thinks blows Twilight out of the water (sorry Twilighters, but after months of listening to girls giggle over Edward, the book has fallen out of favour with me).

PC & Kristin Cast’s (mother and daughter writing team) “Marked” is the first in the House of Night series. Zoey Redbird has just been marked as a fledging vampire and must go to The House of Night, a sort of vampire finishing school. There she will learn to become a vampire and prepare to become a full-fledged one. Of course this is still high school so you get all the regular teen drama angst, just add a little vampire magic. Aphrodite is the top girl in school, potential priestess to the vampire goddess Nyx and an all around mean girl. She loves to make Zoey angry because her ex is into her and because Zoey is different from the others. Zoey is stronger, more magical and in touch with the vamp goddess herself.

There is of course some romance there, but the whole plot doesn’t revolve around it by a long shot (again, sorry Twilight fans, I’m really not meaning to bash). There is more action, intrigue and mystery in the plot than romance (rest assured though, there is plenty there). It’s a great read if you want to read another new take on vampires (the Casts add their own quirks to the mythos) and yet stay close to tradition. “Marked” is the perfect mixture of new and old when it comes to vampires, and once you’ve finished you’ll want to go straight to book two.
Stephen King is my all time favourite author, so I’ve decided to pay tribute to that fact by reviewing what I consider to be his best book; some may disagree, but in my opinion that would be ‘Carrie’. Compared to some of King’s other, much larger works, ‘Carrie’ comes off seeming so simple…but that simplicity is what makes the story so wonderful. It is the characters that makes ‘Carrie’; they’re characters that we can easily recognize when we look back on our own school days: the bullies, the outsiders and everyone in between. Carrie is that outcast, and despite the fact that she goes all crazy and homicidal, it’s so easy to feel sorry for her. Look at all she goes through, all that she’s put through, and then try to hate her. It’s so easy to identify with her; most of us have had that one (or if you’re totally unlucky, more than one) humiliating moment…and then wished that we could get back at the person who caused it. We know how she feels and how it is not entirely her fault what she becomes, and that casts Carrie as a tragic hero more than anything else. And let’s face it, no one can help but love a tragic hero and the story they find themselves in.
There was one weekend that was probably the most profound of all my time in Korea. It's the weekend I went to the House of Sharing. It's a place dedicated to Comfort Women (who I'd rather call survivors of Japanese sexual slavery by the Japanese military, but that it way too long to write over and over. I hate it, but it's a name that people in general can understand right off the bat), both past and present. It's one part museum, one part home for ten of these women. Most of all, it's the most heart wrenching place I have ever been.

We saw pictures of Japanese soldiers lining up to use these women. We heard testimony from the women. Those testimonies were full of rape and torture, of mutilation and death. We were told how the women were ordered like food in a restaurant. We learned more than I could have ever imagined I would ever learn.
We listened to one of the women who live there tell part of her story. She told us how she was kidnapped, thrown into a military van, taken by train to someplace far away. First she was taken to a labour camp. When she complained about the conditions, she was sent to a comfort station. She was fifteen.

She was the only one to tell her story, but we met more of the women. They were amazing. They wanted us to answer questions, and sing and dance for them. In return, one sang a few songs for us. It is the most amazing thing I had ever seen. There women were amazing. They were still able to sing and be happy. They clapped along when the Korean middle schoolers sang and danced for them, and it was obvious they were having a good time. The women who told her story told the students to study hard, because education is important. Despite all they she went through, she still thinks it's so important for kids to learn. After all they went through, they're still living their life. It was the most awe inspiring thing I have ever seen, heard or otherwise.

It makes me angry that we don't learn about these women. Not only Korean women, but women from all over East Asia, and a number of foreign women as well. They were kidnapped, coerced and deceived into being sex slaves, who the Japanese military could do anything they wanted to. How is that any less worthy of learning about than the Holocaust?

On top of that, the currently very conservative government of Japan refuses to acknowledge it did anything wrong back then. According to them, all these women were paid prostitutes, as though that justified the way they were tortured and murdered (on mass at the wend of WW2, to cover up evidence- much like concentration camps in Europe). It's especially terrible, since members of the government apologized (back in 1991, I think) when it first came to light (because of a Japanese historian).
Every Wednesday, surviving women gather in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. They never miss a Wednesday. They want seven things, and the ones that hit me most is that they want an official apology, a memorial to be built, and for Japanese children to learn it in school.

I don't think they'll get it in their lifetime, and that infuriates me.

None of the Korean cases that went to trial ever went anywhere (the one that sort of won got dismissed by Japan's supreme court). The only one that went anywhere was the one by a group of Dutch women. I'm glad, because they're just as much victims, but there is such racism at play. Another thing that infuriates me.
Other countries don't have a movement like Korea, because their government doesn't want to cross Japan.
A Japanese official (minister of foreign affairs, maybe?) went to The House of Sharing, heard everything and demanded that they show them evidence. Do I even have to repeat that it infuriates me?

The Japanese people (or a lot of them at least) want to see the women granted the justice they deserve. 40% of visitors to The House of Sharing are Japanese tourists. That lifts my heart, it really does.
To start off, I just have to say that Seoul Grand Park is gorgeous. It's a huge park with trees, open spaces and is extremely beautiful. In the winter, under a blanket of snow, it's quiet, still and stunning. In the spring and summer, some of the loveliest flowers are in bloom, painting the entire park in a dozen different colours. In the fall, the leaves turn, and the colours are the most brilliant I have ever seen. No matter what the season, Seoul Grand Park is beautiful. The park also has a number of things to do other than wandering through nature.
The Gwacheon National Science Museum and the National Museum of Contemporary Art are both in Seoul Grand Park. The amusement park Seoul Land is also there, along with a botanical garden and green house. What matters for this particular review, is the Seoul Grand Park Zoo.
The Seoul Zoo is huge. I was there a good four-five hours, and I still didn't get to see everything. The zoo is divided into sections, large ones, such as Africa Adventure and Australian Pavilion, with smaller sections, like Poultry Pavilion and Ape Pavilion, within. It's a bit confusing walking around (even with the helpful English map), but there are four paths you can take: The Tiger Path, Dolphin Path, Deer Path and Horned Owl Path. There are over 3, 400 animals, with 360 species. The species are from all over the world, and every type of animal imaginable. From birds to large predators to small herbivores. There's aquatic and land animals, as well as those that fly. Those animals come from all over the world, and are generally grouped together based on geographical location of their natural habitats.

There are your staple African animals, like elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes and zebras, that can be found in any large zoo. When it comes to large cats (a particular favourite of mine), there were lions, snow leopards, tigers, pumas and leopards. There was a large assortment of birds, from birds of prey to water fowl to tropical birds. There were reptiles of all sizes, big (crocodiles) and small (turtles). There was also marine animals like seals, sea lions and even dolphins.

There were also a lot of interactive activities, like feedings, presentations, shows and the opportunity to touch some of the animals. They happen at specific times through the day. I was only able to catch one, and that was the dolphin show.

That is the zoo as a whole, but I still have to let you know the highlights of my trip.
First up, that dolphin show I just told you about. Dolphins are my favourite animals, have been since as long as I can remember. So going to the dolphin show was a no brainer. I literally just made the show in time. It started with some funny antics from a couple of seals, and then went on to the main event: the dolphin performance. I'll admit that it wasn't as exciting as some performances I've seen (there were less tricks), and it would have been better had I been able to understand what the presenters were saying (it was, understandably, in Korean), but it was still the highlight of my day at the zoo.

The second highlight was the fact that I'm pretty sure a number of animals were legitimately showing off. Seriously, they saw a camera and they did something awesome that captivated tourists (including me). There are a few instances that stand out in my mind. First, a seal. Sadly, my memory is incapable of recalling which species of seal, but it was a big one. It was huge. As in size of a medium sized pony huge (I had no idea that seals even came in that size). I was looking at the enclosure, only half paying attention (there were a lot of seals, and I was getting tired). This seal was having none of that, because before I realized what was happening, it dove into the water, swam to the edge of the enclosure and leaned against the glass. It made me jump and either delighted or terrified any of the kids in the area. The seal stayed there for another few seconds (I'd say about ten-fifteen seconds over all), staring us all down, before it slunk back into the water. It was really cool.
Secondly, the wolves and the coyotes. Unlike the seal, this was a group effort made to show off. It was simple enough: one wolf threw back its head and howled, which prompted not only the other wolves, but the coyotes too, to join in. Wolf howls are a pretty haunting yet fairly beautiful sound, especially when there was a group of fifteen or so doing it.

Lastly, one of the bears. There were quite a few of them, but there was one who was particularly interested in the crowd outside the enclosure. It paced along the edge for awhile, before standing up on its hind legs. It waved its arms around (in a 'give me food because I'm awesome' gesture, or so I assume). It stood for a few minutes before it went back to all four legs and walked away (presumably because no one fed him for his efforts).
There was one last highlight to my trip. That last highlight was the nursery. In that nursery, there were baby animals...cute baby animals. There was a chimp, a lion and a few others, and they were all adorable. I was basically left as a little pile of sweetened goo on the floor by the time I could get out of there.

Seoul Grand Park is a lovely place to spend the day, and the zoo itself even more so. It's extremely family friendly (there are a ton of things geared towards kids, from playgrounds to photo op areas) and interesting on top of that.
One of my first reviews was a write up about Scott Westerfield’s “Uglies”. That was quite a while ago now, and if any of you took the stellar advice written in my review, you’d have read “Uglies” and found out that it ended with quite the cliffhanger. So I went and decided that I should go and let you all know how I feel about “Pretties”, the sequel to “Uglies”.

At the end of “Uglies”, Tally returned from the wild and told the people in charge to make her pretty. So they did-Tally is now a bubbly Pretty living the partying life that comes with it. She and Shey are both there, their memories of The Smoke drastically altered and far away. Tally doesn’t remember the reason she allowed herself to be brought back and Prettified in the first place, not until her old friends from The Smoke show up to remind her. That of course leads to some more running away into the wild and away from the crazy government agents doing their best to stop them from completely toppling the structure of civilization, as they know it. There are even more in the way of romantic subplots, and even a full fledged love triangle (a real one, not just one in Shey’s mind).

“Pretties” is one of those fairly rare books that are just as good as the original. This book has more action than the first, which isn’t surprising given that Westerfield took a good chunk of “Uglies” world building. The romance in the book is a step up from the first, and in another shocking turn of events, the incoming potential romantic interest is just as likeable (a bit more so actually, in my not so humble opinion) as the original. Honestly, this is probably the only book ever where I’ve rooted for both couples equally (that is fairly big for me- I usually choose one pairing and stick with it even if I’m going down with the ship). Basically, “Pretties” is a spectacular continuation to Westerfield’s series and I highly recommend it.
I'm not going to lie- Namhae was a really disappointing trip. It had so much promise - a trip to an island down south over the Buddha's birthday long weekend, with seeing the sunrise on a mountain temple, some awesome beaches and a kick ass kayaking trip-, but because of (quite frankly) terrible planning and organization on the part of the tour group, it was a total mess. The only reason the trip didn't totally suck was because I met some amazing people who I still hand out with to this day. The first problem was the fact we rode all night on the bus (four hours).

Which, okay, isn't terrible. The terrible part? Arriving at four AM and having to hike a bloody mountain on only an hour or so of bus sleep. That was hard, because it was a steep mountain. I was smart (and lazy) and took a shuttle bus up. That was a good call, because it wasn't even a real mountain hike. It was the group walking up the asphalt road that led to the temple. When it comes to mountain hiking in Korea, that's really boring. Even with the shuttle bus, I still had to walk up a steep hill for a good fifteen minutes. The main issue? The group promised a 'gradual incline', basically telling us it was a medium difficulty walk. That was certainly not a 'gradual incline'. It sounds like the group leader read a description on the internet without actually knowing what the mountain was like.

The beginning of the trip wasn't a total waste. At the (roughly) top of Mt. Geumsan was Boriam Temple. The way up to the temple was lined with lit paper lanterns on both sides. It was dark and silent, and beautiful. The further I got up, the lighter it became. By the time I reached the temple, the sky had gone from midnight black to royal blue. There was a town down at the base of the mountain, with the sea as well. For a long time, all you saw was twinkling lights. It was a hazy, overcast morning, so the sunrise wasn't a big picture of red and gold, but a gradual lightening of the sky from blue to grey, with a dash of pink on the horizon.

Boriam Temple is a pretty small temple, but interesting and beautiful nonetheless. It's a hermitage, and has a few shrines as well as a residential hall for the monks. There's also a three story pagoda. The pagoda is said to be built from stones brought from India. The pagoda was to mark the building of a temple to hold Buddha's relics. The temple is special because it's one of the three places in Korea dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. There's a beautiful statue of the bodhisattva in the same courtyard as the three story pagoda. The temple was silent save for the chanting of monks (which is a very relaxing sound). It was cold, but that didn't stop the people from coming to pray there, to begin Buddha's birthday. It was, without a doubt, the most amazing way to observe Buddha's birthday. It was beautiful and peaceful, and certainly one of the best moments of the trip was exploring the temple.

Leaving the temple, however, was a different story. This is where the hot mess of planning really took off. There was a vague 'we'll meet at blah time'...but they didn't tell us where to meet. There was a lot of confusion, not only because we were split up so badly. Not only between the shuttle bus and hiking people, but within the hikers themselves. The good hikers? Up to the temple in half and hour. The bad ones? About an hour and a half. Of course, the guides were in the first group, and instead of waiting at the top to make sure that everyone knew what was happening, they went at their own pace and did their own thing (a recurring theme throughout the weekend, sadly). A lot of people sat at the top and had no idea what to do from there. As for the rest of us, we decided to take the shuttle bus or hike back down, though that took a lot more time than anticipated because of traffic.

By the time everyone finally found their way back to the bus, it was about an hour after we were supposed to leave. Another recurring theme, as it would turn out. The day didn't get anymore organized from there.

One of the draws of Namhae island is the beaches. Over the three days, we were set to visit three beaches. The first one, Silver Sands Beach, was the destination right after we got off the mountain. Silver Sands Beach is one of those dream beaches, with soft golden sand and sparkling blue water. It was fairly warm (the water not so much, since it was still Spring), so I kicked off my shoes and walked the length of the beach a few times, exploring, collecting rocks and shells and drawing in the sand. I could have spent a few good hours on that beach...
Too bad that wasn't going to happen. Since we had stayed so long at the temple, our hour at the beach was cut in half (not nearly enough time). I disliked it, but figured that we still had two more beaches to enjoy, so my longing on the beach. Yes, not so much, but more on that later.

Next stop was the rice terraces. Based on the picture showed on the group's website, this sight looked gorgeous. The rice fields were built on top of another, jolting out in terraces that layered the hillside. Each terrace was filled with water, which is essential for growing rice, just waiting to be gathered. That was the picture, but not the reality.

The rice terraces were still there, with over a hundred steps of them going up the hill (which, admittedly, was an impressive sight). What was missing, however, was the water. Turns out, rice wasn't in season, so the terraces were filled with tall stalks of plant life. The water was what made it look so cool, so without it...well, let's just say I was pretty 'meh' about my time spent there.

The 'meh' continued throughout the day, with a few glimmering examples of awesome. After the rice terraces, we went to the pension we would be staying at. Good news: I got one of the rooms with a bed! Bad news: It was on the middle of a hill, and fifteen minutes from where we would spend the majority of our time, and we had to walk it. On another note, there were no restaurants and the closest (half decent) convenience store was a good twenty to twenty-five minutes away on foot. That said, out accommodations could have been much, much worse.

After getting settled, we took the bus over to the German Village, which was only five minutes away. I found the whole idea of the German Village interesting: It was built for returning immigrant workers, who went to Germany after the Korean War to learn valuable trade skills. The government wanted to make any culture shock easier to deal with, so the German Village was built (there was also an American Village we drove by, but we didn't stop there).

Much like the rice terraces, the German Village turned out to be les than what was advertised. The buildings were supposed to be German style, but they really weren't. They certainly weren't Korean and vaguely European, but not German (there were people who had travelled through Germany who backed me up). Frankly, the only thing that came across as particularly German was the food served in the cafe (the waffles were delicious) and the vast assortment of German beer they had in the bar (which didn't interest me, for obvious reasons).
That said, the place wasn't a complete disappointment. It was a cute, homey village that was nice to walk through. Besides the quaintness the village itself possessed, there was the added benefit of having an art village right beside it. Despite the name, it's not actually a village. It's actually more of a beautiful garden with buildings in various world styles scattered here and there. It was spring, so many colourful flowers were out in bloom. The paths were lovely, in a little confusing. There were classical statues everywhere, and it certainly didn't feel like I was walking through a garden in Korea.

The art part of the name comes from the building at the end of the village, at the top of a hill (when aren't they?). It's a building that not only displays art, but where you can do some crafts as well. There were three available: Making a wall decoration, decorating chocolate and making an image to be pasted on a mug. Originally, I had wanted to decorate chocolate (who wouldn't?), but because I got there so late, they were no longer doing it. I was sort of upset, but decided to do the mug thing instead. I drew out the silhouette of a black swan, wrote my Greek letters out and voila! A DHI mug I'll keep until the end of my days. Of course I did it wrong and the picture is backwards, but whatever!

I almost didn't get to do the art village, all because of the poor organization of our leaders. I liked them, and thought they were cool people. I didn't, however, appreciate how some of them cared more about getting drunk and having fun than leading, or how others had no patience. In the case of the art village, one of the leaders was going to lead those who waned to go to the art village there, and the other would take anyone interested to the bar. Problem was, they didn't tell us who was who. They waited until about half of us were off the bus, and left before the rest of us were off. That left those of us at the back of the bus, like me, had no idea what to do. The girl who I was with and I legitimately wandered around for half an hour before we got into the art village, since there was no English (at least no one who could speak it). I still say it's only sheer stubbornness that we finally figured out how to get into the bloody place.

After meeting up with a few people in the art village, we decided to head down to the music festival site a fifteen minute walk away from the village. It was right next to a small village of about thirty Korean style houses, and I'll admit were got lost down some back alleys. The festival was offering a barbeque for 20,000 won, but my picky eating habits struck again, and there was nothing I really liked there. Thankfully, in true Korean fashion, ramen was for sale. For some reason I don't understand, the festival's music acts were all English, same as the festival as a whole. Sadly, it was all very, very bad music. Some of it was ear bleeding bad. The two good points were when I got an awesome portrait drawn of me and got my face painted with a cool design.

There was going to be a bonfire on the beach that night, but there was no way I was sticking around for that. I was running on two hours of travel sleep, and by eight PM, I was exhausted. I didn't want to do anything but sleep. So I made the trek up to the pension, curled up in bed and basically passed out until the next day. Thus ended day one.
Granted, I was still tired (despite sleeping completely through the night), but I was looking forward to the day. I had signed up to go on a three hour kayaking trip. We were supposed to go up the coast and stop at a secluded beach, get out and have a traditional lunch (which I probably wouldn't have liked, knowing me, but that was okay), and I was really looking forward to it. It was actually the activity I was looking forward to the most. Like many other parts of the trip, it didn't go the way it was supposed to.

When I got down to the beach (more on that later), I waited a good fifteen minutes to get this news: I couldn't do the kayaking I wanted. Turns out, the guy in charge of organizing it (for once, no one of the leaders of our group, but an outside source) didn't check with anyone about whether or not they had the right to actually do it. As it turns out, they didn't. For whatever reason, we weren't allowed to go out of the harbour. So it was shortened to a two hour paddle around in the harbour (which as a little smaller than the one in St. Martins).

Suffice to say, I wasn't pleased. I may have over reacted a bit in my snit, but with all the disappointment of the first day, I don't blame myself. I decided to pass on the kayaking, mostly because it wasn't something I hadn't done before. Instead, I decided to go on the yacht ride later in the day. It wasn't a terrible time, but it wasn't a great time either. The trip was supposed to be two hours along the bay. Instead, it was about an hour and a half in a giant circle just outside the breakwater. Thankfully, I ended up getting a partial refund for that.

Besides the water activities, it was supposed to be a day to chill out on the beach. I was expecting a beach like we had gone to the day before, and was really looking forward to spending a few hours lounging and reading. The beach, however, didn't turn out like I was expecting it to.

Turns out, the beach was more like those in St. Martins than the sandy beach I had been to the day before. Don't get me wrong- I love going to the beach in St. Martins. It's one of my favourite places, actually. That doesn't mean that rocky beaches are the best places to lounge on and read for a couple of hours. Exploring it was fun for awhile, but it was also pretty small, even with the harbour area right beside it (which also reminded me so much of St. Martins it made me homesick).

There was one bright spot of the day, and that was running into friends on my way back up to the pension. There was a small wooded area right before the beach started. It wasn't very big, but it ran along the length of the beach. There were trees, rather thin, twisty trees and knee high grass on either side of a raised, wooden walking path. It was a really nice place to walk, once again reminding me of walking trails back in New Brunswick. It certainly wasn't something I've seen in Korea a lot.

I ran into my friends in the wooded area and we spent the rest of the afternoon taking crazy pictures in the woods, on the beach and at the harbour. It was an afternoon well spent, in my humble opinion.

After returning from an unsatisfactory yacht ride, the next item on the agenda (after supper, which was more ramen for me) was another bonfire. Like the one the night before, I was destined to miss it. This wasn't because of being tired, but because of A. weather, and B. how pitiful of a fire it was. Around the time the bonfire was about to start, it started to sprinkle. Nothing more than an annoyance, but coupled with the fact the 'bonfire' sucked (it was maybe the size of a personal bonfire, if that), I (and many others) decided to call it a night.

That said, the night wasn't a complete loss. A bunch of us chilled out in one of the rooms, chatting and watching movies. The best part? That annoying sprinkle turned into a downpour, but I was already safe, sound and snug at the hotel by the time it did. That was the luckiest I got all weekend.
Here we come to the last day of the Buddha's birthday long weekend trip to Namhae. Day three, as it turned out, managed to be the best and the worst day of them all. Day three, once again, started off behind schedule, which led to some of the worst frustrations of the day.. We left the hotel a good half an hour than we were supposed to, which is never a good way to start the day. Despite all that, we finally got on our way.

The first place we went to was the last of the beaches that were promised to us. This beach was an interesting mix of the first two we went to. It was the smallest one, and had a mix of sand and rocks, depending on what part of the beach you were standing on. It did, however, have the cliffs right to the water's edge, and the surf was rough that say, so it was awesome to watch the white caps hit the rocks, and the spray to go up so high in the air.

We weren't actually there for the beach. We were there for the zip lining. It ran the length of the beach (granted, that wasn't all that large) and over the waves. I'm scared of heights, so of course that meant I just had to do the zip line. I got to the edge of the platform, and they strapped me in. It actually wasn't all that high, especially for a girl that few up climbing around sea caves. Looking down, it was even like that, what with the churning waves, damp air and grey sky. They pushed me, and there I went, angling down towards the other side of the beach. I spun around a couple times, and my laughter might have gone a little bit hysterical (not from fear, but it tends to do it when adrenaline is involved). It was only (maybe) ten seconds until I reached the platform on the other side, and I kept laughing after I landed. It might not be the most exciting thing I've ever done, but it was still one of the most fun moments the trip.

From there, we had some free time on the beach. I had the best Korean barbeque I have had to date for lunch, and then the moment I had truly been waiting for came. When first looking into trips to take for the long weekend, Namhae had only vaguely interested me at first. All the things I've written about so far sounded great, but it hadn't stood out to me as a 'must do this!'. Then, I got to the last of the activities- a dinosaur museum. There would be a visit to a dinosaur museum, and from that moment, I was sold. As I've said before, I really love dinosaurs.

This is where the best/worst part of the trip comes in. A number of people wanted to stay at the beach. Of course, it took a good ten minutes for them to decide to do it, and another ten to figure out who was going there. Because of all that time wasted, we only had an hour to get there, see the museum and get back (why we had to get back to them at the leaving time, instead of them having to wait until we were done at the museum at the allotted time, I don't understand- especially since they're the ones that screwed up the plan. Yes, I'm bitter). By the time we arrived at the museum, we only had about forty minutes to see it. That is why it was the worst part of the trip. It was the best part of the trip because the Goseong Dinosaur Museum was completely awesome.

The Goseong Dinosaur Museum was the first dinosaur museum in Korea. It's located in the middle of Hallyeosudo National Park and close to Sangjogam County Park (famous for the rocks on the beach, called 'ssangjog' or 'sgangbal' -which means 'two-legged rock' because they look like dinner table leg-shaped stone caves). The museum is divided into two parts: The Dinosaur Museum, which is inside a giant, interestingly designed dome shaped building, and The Dinosaur Park, which is the outdoor museum.

Since there was a ridiculous amount of time restraint, the majority of my time was spent in the indoor section of the museum. The inside section of the museum is divided into seven sections. The first exhibition hall is Capital of the Dinosaurs. This is just like rooms you find in dinosaur museums around the world. It's full of dinosaur bones of all types, big and small. There's full skeletons, which are always fun to see. There's information signs in both Korean and English, so that's always helpful. In this section there is also a video room, but this is solely in Korean, so it was of no use to me.

Exhibit hall two is dedicated to dinosaur footprints (the inclusion of this room will make sense later). Like the skeletons, there were a number of different types. Pictures are above each fossil, showing where the fossils were found. That was a nice touch, and places the fossils in a context of the world, not just as cool looking stones.

One of the coolest rooms in the museum was the Cretaceous Dinosaur Room. First off, in order to enter the room, you need to pass through a door that is a giant T-Rex with a wide open mouth. That's right- you have to act like you're being eaten by a T-Rex to get into the next room. That was the coolest thing I did all weekend. Inside the room is just as cool. It was designed like a jungle in the cretaceous period, complete with animatronics dinosaurs. I love moving dinosaurs, and was as excited as a five year old as I followed the brilliantly designed path.
Next up was the most interactive room in the whole museum. There are a bunch of things you can touch, including some fossils. You can stand next to a huge bone from a sauropod dinosaur leg and see how your height compares (spoiler alert: a person is very, very small next to one). Another fun part was there was an area where you could run as fast as you can to see if you could outrun specific species of dinosaurs (another spoiler alert: you really can't, so prepare to be lunch).

Exhibition hall five was a bit of a rehash of the first, though it was organized differently. This time it was in chronological order: Precambrian Era, Palaeozoic Era and Cainozoic Era. For those of you not well versed in palaeontology, those eras are, in order, from the formation of the Earth to about 4600 million years ago, 541 to 252.5 million years ago (and the era where most of the dinosaurs we know lived) and 66 million years ago until the present day. Basically, all of Earth's history is covered from the very beginning.

There's also a special exhibition room, which rotates art not related to dinosaurs. I didn't get a chance to see the room, but it's filled with art from various in Goseong itself. The main hall is also great, because it features the most impressive fossils in the museum. There is a standing on two legs, neck held all the way up, pterosaurs. Pterosaurs is a huge long neck, and it's glorious to behold the skeleton. There are also skeletons of carnivores and herbivores that lived in Asia during the Mesozoic Era (252 to 66 million years ago). There's flying dinosaurs hanging from the ceiling, predators looking like they're roaring, herbivores looking like they're graving, and so much more.

That was it for inside dinosaur museum. While I didn't get a chance to see much of it, there was still Dinosaur Park to explore. Most of what I saw was the sculptures that were all over the place. The first sculpture is actually at the entrance to the museum. There's a rather gruesome statue of an unfortunate herbivore being taken down by a pack of raptors, in all its bloody glory. There are more sculptures, and most of them were extremely life like. On top of the statues, there are some massive dinosaur art outside, including a massive metal statue that forms a huge long necked dinosaur and an interesting grip triceratops.

The Dinosaur Park also has a dinosaur playground (which is really cool, since the rides were basically designed as dinosaurs), Japanese cypress forest, Rabbit and White Deer Hill, topiary garden (the bushes, of course, shaped like cutesy dinosaurs) and Flower Hill. With time restraints in mind, I had to skip on seeing most of these.

There is a crowning jewel of the dinosaur museum, one that I didn't get a chance to see (making it the most disappointing part of the trip). It was the dinosaur and bird fossil site. Down on the beach, there are fossilized dinosaur (amongst other creatures) footprints from the Cretaceous period. They go on for miles, and a visitor can literally walk in the footprints of dinosaurs, on the path they walked millions of years ago. It still disappoints me that I didn't get to experience that. It would have been amazing, knowing you were walking in the same place as a dinosaur, with actual evidence right at your feet. Especially in a place that's one of the top three dinosaur footprint fossil sites in the world.

There is only one thing left to talk about at the Goseong Dinosaur Museum, and it has nothing to do with dinosaurs. It actually has to do with the path down to the parking lot. It seems an odd thing to mention, but trust me, it was epic. You don't walk down to the parking lot. Oh no, you slide down. Yes, you read that right- you sit down on a slide of those little rolls you see on shelves to move boxes, and then slide right down through the tube to where your car awaits. It was the most random, ridiculous thing I have ever seen...and it was one of the silliest, most fun thing I did in Korea. I'd recommend the museum just to do that!

After rushing back to the beach to pick up the rest of the group, there was nothing more for us to do than start the long ride home. With that, my Buddha's birthday long weekend to Namhae came to a close.
For the most part, Philippa Gregory's books are told from the perspective pf the big historical characters- Mary Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, etc. The main characters are true characters, which is part of the appeal of her books. That, however, is not always the case. Gregory's "The Queen's Fool" is that exception.

"The Queen's Fool" chronologically takes place after "The Boleyn Inheritance". While the book deals with the Tudor children, it's told through the eyes if the completely fictional Hannah Green. Years before the book began, Hannah and her father fled Spain in the wake of her mother's burning at the sake by the Inquisition (they're Jews). They run all the way to England, where they open a bookshop, and Hannah has the 'Sight', which allows her to see things- a scaffold behind a man who would hang a year later. On business, Lord Robert Dudley and John Dee (real people) see her, find out about her and recruit her to be their own spy. They send her into the court of Edward VI (Henry VIII's son with Jane Seymour) to spy on the Princess Mary (yep- that Mary). Hannah, while watching the historical events pass by - Edward's death, the nine days queen, Elizabeth's potential betrayal, Mary's cruelty- develops a close bond with Mary, and has a number of complicated relationships with Princess Elizabeth, Robert Dudley and even her own faith. The book follows the near end of Edward's reign to the fall of Calais, and all the world changing politics in between.

Hannah as a main character is interesting. She's a mass of contradictions, both rebelling and obey at different points. Hannah's mother was burned at the stake by religious fanatics, and yet she stands by Mary's side when she goes on her own inquisition. She's interesting because Gregory has so much leeway with her. She's not real, and neither were her family members, so there could be more creative licence taken. The love story she also finds herself in is also an interesting one, and it more than anything shows Hannah's character growth.

I liked Hannah and I liked the plot, but Gregory's crowning achievement with "The Queen's Fool" is the fact she managed to make the woman who went down in history as 'Bloody Mary' sympathetic. She makes you like Mary, even as you're horrified about what she's doing. Gregory portrays Mary as a fanatic and a woman drowning, a woman who's still suffering from what she went through as a child...a woman whose whole reign is a reaction to what was done to England because of Anne Boleyn. Mary is still a bad guy, but she's a sympathetic bad guy nonetheless. "The Queen's Fool" isn't my favourite Philippa Gregory novel, but I will agree that, for the sheer fact that an original character is in the lead, it makes it stand out from the rest.
We had to read this book for English so I assumed, along with the rest of my classmates, that it would be as boring as most of the pervious school novels had been. I complained along with the rest of the class (this book is huge), but in the end the book delivered just what the teacher said it would; a powerful story of suffering, joy and love that can touch even the hardest of hearts. Set in poverty stricken India, ‘A Fine Balance’ focuses on four different people who are brought together through drastic circumstances. Never before have I read a book that has documented such pain and suffering that has affected me so much. What makes this such a masterpiece is how Mistry is able to show that amid all of the extreme suffering there are moments of simple and yet great joy that can be found. Even in his writing style he emphasis the joyful moments; when something gut wrenchingly horrible happens he writes it as a simple fact, and saves the greatest detail to the happy moments. ‘A Fine Balance’ really hits hard for someone in our part of the world, who can’t help but find it impossible to understand that this kind of suffering actually does happen in other parts of the world; it’s almost like a slap in the face with a dose of reality that just can’t be ignored. Mistry makes us see just how real it is. One word of advice; don’t read ‘A Fine Balance’ if you’re in a mood to be cheered up, because it will do the complete opposite. But if you want to read something that will open your eyes and make you feel, this book is for you.
I’m a sucker for a book that takes a well known, black and white story and turns it on its head. One of the best examples is ‘Wicked’ by Gregory Maguire. ‘Wicked’ tells the story of Elphaba, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West, featured in ‘The Wizard of Oz’. The story follows from her birth all the way to that fateful say that Dorothy drops a house on her sister. Despite the conflicting emotions about her character as a whole, most of the book we’re meant to, in a way feel sorry for her; the story touches on how hard it is to be different from everyone else. One of its most poignant and yet so simple moments is Galinda’s (the good witch) initial reaction –which is horror- at being forced to share a room with Elphaba at a boarding school…just because the other girl was born green. Elphaba is far from an average hero, but she isn’t a complete villain either; at times we hate her and at times we love her. That’s where the beauty of this story lies; it makes the reader question what makes a person evil and what makes them good. More importantly, can a person be born evil? Through out the book Elphaba states that she has no soul, and what makes Maguire’s writing spectacular is that instead of telling us if she speaks the truth or not, he leaves it up to us to decide.
In it, there are the five major palaces. The first of those palaces that I got to visit was Changdeokgung Palace. It's a huge living complex that was built to house the kinds of the Joseon Dynasty, and it's pretty spectacular. Changdeokgung is actually divided into two sections: the palace proper, and the Secret Garden. One article isn't enough to do them justice, so I'll be cutting them into their own separate reviews. This article I'll write about the palace itself, and next the Secret Garden.

Changdeokgung Palace was built as a secondary palace for the Joseon Dynasty in 1405 (under King Taejong). While it began as a second palace, Changdeokgung became the main palace in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of the 1500s, and stayed so for about 270 years (1868). Changdeokgung is considered a uniquely Korean palace because it was designed in harmony with the area's topography. This was possible because it was built on the base of a mountain, and thus the buildings could be constructed with the geographical features of the natural slopes in mind (in fact, Changdeokgung was built because King Taejong thought the topography of the primary palace wasn't auspicious enough...of course, it might have had something to do with the fact Taejong assassinated his way to the throne, killing his brothers at the very palace he was replacing).

The main gate of Changdeokgung is an imposing structure. Like most other gates I've seen in Korea, it's in the form of a pagoda, and it's a massive. Once inside the gate, there's a small stone bridge in a huge courtyard surrounded by traditional buildings. It's a simple bridge, but Geumcheongyo Bridge is the oldest structure in the palace. Not only that, but it's the oldest stone bridge left in all of Seoul.

This courtyard is also where the Jnseonmun Gate is, and that's where the king would address his subjects. In theory, all subject had to do was bang a special drum to gain an audience with the king, but that rarely managed to happen (many an official, after all, has been self serving and corrupt since politics were invented, and Joseon Dynasty Korea was no exception).

The second area of the palace is what I'd consider the main part. It's big, it's flashy and it's certainly majestic. All of that is because this is where Injeongjeon, the main throne room, is located. The square outside it the building was where all ceremonies and state affairs took place, such as coronations, royal marriages and the receiving of foreign dignitaries. The throne room itself is huge and elaborate, and that's both inside and out. The inside is set up as it would have been during the Joseon Dynasty. There's exquisite, highly symbolic art painted on the walls and beautifully designed furniture. It all screamed royalty, and it was so obvious why a king could sit in that room and think he truly did rule the world. In that atmosphere, who wouldn't?

Off the throne room area, the buildings get a tad simpler (but not by too much). These areas were for the day to day affairs of running the kingdom, living residences for the king, queen and crown prince, and a site for government offices. Seonjeongjeon was officially the work place of the king (of note because it's the only building in the palace with a blue titled roof, though it's not something you notice at first, since you're too busy admiring the rest of the building), but that wasn't big enough for him, so he moved his work station to his bedchamber, Huijepngdang. Once, Huijeongdang was one of the most elegant buildings in the palace, but it was destroyed in a fire (actually, at some point in history, nearly all the palace was destroyed by fire. It is a curse of wooden buildings in countries at war). When it was rebuilt, it was in a simpler, and interestingly more western style.

Another area worthy of note is in the residence of the queen, Heungbokheon building in particualr. This building is interesting not for its look or design, but because of the history that happened in it. This building is where the last cabinet meeting of the Joseon Dynasty was held. This was the building where they deliberated over the Japanese annexation of Joseon Korea. This building was where a tragic moment in Korea's history took place.
The Daejojeon area also has the last king and queen of Korea's bedchamber standing, another final note in Korean history. There's a sadness in this area, were such a vibrant part of Korea came to an end. This was, for all intents and purposes, a place of the last of the Joseon Dynasty, which spanned centuries. It was an ending, and not one that led to better things- the Japanese colonization of Korea was brutal.

The old Seonwonjeon site is the part of the palace where the royal ancestral rites were once performed. Like many Asian cultures, Korea has a great emphasis on honouring your ancestors (a practiced enforced in two of the most historically prominent religions, Buddhism and especially Confucianism). In the time of the Joseon Dynasty, there was great elaborateness in these rituals. This area was the royal shrine of Changdeokgung Palace. Ancestral tablets of dead kings and queens (which were supposed to hold the spirit after death) were housed here for three years, before they were moved to the official royal shrine, and the coffin was displayed in a special hall for five months, before being moved to the official royal tombs. When the yearly ancestral rituals were done, they were done here...at least for a time. This building is called 'old' for a reason. During the Japanese occupation, the shrine was moved deep into the garden area in order to keep it from Japanese eyes (at least as much as possible, and that was a struggle, since Japan was determined to stamp out all traces of the Korean national identity). This place was just left, and eventually it became little more than a ruin that was eventually restored when Changdeokgung was to be opened to the public.

One final area of note it one that proves that not all kings are given to excess. Compared to the rest of the buildings in the palace, Nakseonjae Complex is kind of boring. It's small, pretty plain and lacks any of the beautiful decorations found on other buildings. There's a reason for this. This complex was built very specifically for King Heonjong's use, and he was a man with simple tastes. This was his quarters, and he didn't need it flashy. This was the place where he came to relax, and he didn't want it flashy. When all we expect from royalty is the flamboyant, it's nice when they surprise us with simplicity. For all the rest of the palace was magnificent, this little corner of it was quite refreshing. Out of all the areas of the palace, this was the only one I'd actually want to live in.

Much like the Daejojeon Area, the Nakseonjae Complex is a place where an end came to history. This was where the wife of the last crown prince, Bangja Lee, lived until 1989. The year I was born, another piece of Korean history closed, and this too made me sad.

There was another special feature about my trip to Changdeokgung, which had nothing to do with the palace itself. I visited just as the cherry blossoms came out, and it was beautiful. I'd never really seen cherry blossoms before, and they took my breath away. Some of them were vibrant pink, so pink it was almost too hard to believe that it was a natural colour. Others were such a light pink that they looked white until you got close to them. Others were many shades of pink between those two extremes. Roughly a quarter of the trees on the palace grounds were cherry blossoms in bloom. It added a shine onto the wonderfulness that was Changdeokgung Palace.
Last article, I told you all about the wonderful Changdeokgung Palace. I wrote all about the palace proper, and I didn't have the space to tell you all about the second part of Changdeokgung, which I consider the most amazing part. The second part of the palace is The Secret Garden, and with this review, I am going to tell you all about it. The Secret Garden isn't what I'd consider an accurate name (not only because it's not actually a secret). It's not really a garden, but instead a very big park. It was a park used as a retreat for the royal family, with very select outside people also being granted permission to enter on occasion.

The first part of the garden you come to is actually my favourite. This area is considered the heart of the garden, and it's easy to tell why. There are a number of buildings in the area, and each has an interesting function. The first one is a raised, pagoda style, open room. This was the building where, on special occasions, aspiring scholars took their final exams in the presence of the king himself. This was a huge deal, and passing those exams would make or break a would-be scholar. That was their goal- to pass those exams and become an official to the king. I can't imagine the pressure that was on them, especially when said king was sitting there watching them.
Right across from the building is Byongji Pond. It's a medium sized pond, full of coy fish and with a small 'island' with a twisty, bonsai looking tree in the middle. This pond was the location of many a poetry contest, and the losers were 'exiled' to the island.

Right beside the pond (built partially over it actually) is another pagoda, though this one is different than any of the others I've described. It's designed to look like a lotus flower in bloom, which means the tips of the roof tilt upwards at interesting angles. It's a really cool, geometrically interesting building.

The last building in the area is the one that I liked the most. Up on a hill, at the top of a tall staircase, is the royal library. It's a massive building, two stories, and was, at one time, so full of knowledge that it makes me jealous. This was only used by the royal family, though councillors had access to the building beside the library for meetings with the king. This separation between the two is very apparent from the very beginning. There are three gates to get to the library. There is a more eloberate, normal sized gate in the middle, and two smaller gates on eith side. The main gate is for the king, and the two smaller ones for his councillors. It's a very big reminder that he is better than them: not only did they have to use a different door, they had to bow over to even pass through it. It was the king's way of keeping his underlings humble, and keeping them in their place.

Before entering the next part of the garden, you need to pass through a stone doorway with Chinese characters engraved across the top. This is the Eternity Gate. Legend has it that, if you pass through this gate and are a good person, you'll be granted eternal life. I can't offer any concrete proof of that yet, but I'll get back to you in the future if my life is apparently stretching on into eternity.

Through the Eternity Gate, you pass by the set of simple, plain buildings where the crown prince was put through very, very intensive study. So intensive that it's a wonder the poor boy didn't burn out early on. Past these simple buildings, the gardens get beautiful again with Aeryeon Pond. The name means 'Loving the Lotus Flowers' because beautiful lotus flowers grow in the dirty water (there were only a few in bloom during my visit, but the water was covered in lily pads, and looked lovely anyway). They mean purity, and King Sukjong thought that they also symbolized the virtue of true gentlemen, and that's why he named the pond like he did. Interestingly, this is also a pond said to have two pagodas, despite having only one small one built. Can you guess where the other one is? If you guessed the pagoda's reflection in the water, then you'd be right.

After the pond, there's what legitimately looks like a noble family's home complex. In fact, Yeongyeongdang is an audience hall modeled after a typical literati (a scholarly noble) house, so that was the whole point. Crown Prince Hyomyeong built this complex to hold the Jnjakrye Ceremony for his mother's 40th birthday, and to also give a title to his father. It was certainly a different kind of gift, that's for sure.

I'm sure by now you've noticed a trend- pagodas play a huge part in the design of the garden. This next area, which has four different pagodas, many of them in different shapes, proves it further. The one I liked best sat on a pond in the shape of the Korean peninsula itself. The pagoda was shaped like a fan, and it's the only one like it in Korea. It was so pretty to look at, and it was on the side of a pond, surrounded by so much vibrant green, it was completely stunning.

Like pagodas, you may have noticed that water also played a big role in the design of the garden. In the Ongnyucheon Area, the entire area was built around a brook of the same name that ran through it (there wasn't actually any water in it while I was there, since it hadn't rained in quite awhile). Because of this brook, the classiest drinking game ever was played. This was how it went: a cup of wine was floated down the water. Whoever the wine came to had to drink the cup and then compose and recite a poem on the spot. If they couldn't, they had to drink three cups of wine. If anything, that just shows the emphasis and importance the upper class put on their abilities in personal artistic, cultural and intellectual pursuits.

There's also another unique pagoda here, and it is so because it has a thatched roof. Around the pagoda is the most interesting thing. The pagoda is in the middle of a fully functioning rice paddy. The story of why this is there is an odd one, at least from my perspective. This rice paddy was attended by the king himself, in order for him to know what toil his people went through. It was also a way for him to pray for a good harvest. I feel it falls under it's the thought that counts, since that little rice paddy came no where close to what Korean rice farmers had to deal with everyday.

One final thing to see isn't in The Secret Garden itself, but on the path that leads out. To leave The Secret Garden, you have to walk beside the palace grounds. On the way down, you pass by a gnarled, twisted and bent juniper tree. It's an ancient tree, and is in the shape of a dragon taking off. It's said to be an important, magical tree (dragons symbolize the king), made even more so because you can see the other animals of the Chinese zodiac in the trunk and limbs. I didn't see all twelve, but I was able to pick out a monkey without help. It was a different thing to end with, that's for sure.

One note about The Secret Garden- it's not a place where you're free to wander at your leisure. The Secret Garden can only be done on a guided tour. English tours are only at selected times a few times a day. You need to plan your time exactly if you want to see The Secret Garden. A bit of an inconvenience perhaps, but believe me when I tell you it's worth it. Changdeokgung's Secret Garden is absolutely beautiful, and one of the things you need to see while in Seoul.
It seems to me that towers are a big part of the tourism industry. I draw that conclusion because there are quite a few big cities in the world that boast one. Off the top of my head, I can think of Toronto's CN Tower and the Calgary Tower, and those are only in Canada. Given this trend, it's no surprise that Seoul, Korea's capital city, has a tower of its own. The name of said tower, simply enough, is N Seoul Tower. N Seoul Tower has been called one of the best towers in Asia, and after being there, I can understand why.

The tower itself is 236.7 m high, and it stands on top of Namsan Mountain, which is another 243 m. You can see N Seoul Tower from almost anywhere in Seoul, and it's a great addition to the wonderful skyline. The tower itself has an observatory that has a 360 degree panoramic view, and you can see all of Seoul from it. The view is spectacular and breath taking, and more than worth the trip up (especially for someone afraid of heights, like me). Even the bathroom has a floor to ceiling window to show off the view (though the stalls themselves are behind a solid wall). Being that high, looking over Seoul - I could see the Han River, Building 63...so many wonderful spots that I got to visit in my first year there-, was awesome. It was one of the best high views I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few in my time.

The observation tower isn't the only amazing view that N Seoul Tower has to offer. In order to get up to the tower, you have to pass through another view. In fact, you have to go right through it. To get up to the tower, you need to take a glass walled gondola for a minute or so ride. I will admit that I couldn't look out the whole time, but raising higher and higher and then passing above the green trees that covered the mountain side, was the perfect was to being the N Seoul Tower experience.

When you reach the top, there's still a bit of a climb to get to the tower. There's stairs, but it's still a bit steep. Going up, you pass by a reminder that, no matter where you go, you're close to history in Seoul. Mt. Namsan is also a beacon hill site. On top of an old wall, there are five brick, tall and hollow cone shaped structures. Those structures are beacons that date back to medieval times. These beacons were lit to warn of raids or other disasters, so that word could be sent quickly to the rest of Korea. I'm sure you've seen it in the movies, so yes, this did happen in real life. Once one beacon was lit, the next set of beacons (miles and miles away) would see the fire and, in response, light their own, and so on and so fourth. In the age before instant communication, it was an effective way to get an emergency message out. It was also an interesting side note to my day at N Seoul Tower.

At the top, there us a huge plaza with many outlooks. There's a big open square, where the tower sometimes hosts events and celebrations (thought none while I was there, unfortunately). Besides the plaza, there is also what I'd describe as a huge deck nearly all the way around the base of the tower. On that deck, there's something very odd and a little bewildering to see. There is a fence all around the deck and shapes that look like weirdly shaped trees. That fence and those trees are covered in layer after layer in the strangest things ever- locks. They're old fashioned key locks, and at first I had no idea what was going on. I wandered around, head tilted to the side, trying to figure out what all those locks were about. It wasn't until I reached a cart selling locks that I found out what it was about: you buy a lock, write a wish on it and then lock it on one of the trees or the fence. Of course, after realizing that, I just had to buy a lock and make a wish of my own. You never know- maybe, if you buy a lock and make a wish of your own one day when you visit N Seoul Tower, you'll end up locking it close to mine. Just imagine- two St. Martins wishes, locked on a fence continents away.

The locks aren't the only place in N Seoul Tower where wishes are meant to be made. Up in the observation tower is the wishing pond. You get a coin, stand behind a line and try to toss the coin into the raised bowl in the middle of an artfully designed and illumined water feature. The best part? When you buy one of these coins, the money goes to support schools in China and South East Asia. So not only do you get to make a wish, but you get to help a good cause while doing it.

Right beside the wishing pond there is another fun, quirky part of N Seoul Tower. There's a mail box, where you can by a post card and get it mailed from the highest post office in Korea.
There is one final, random thing in the tower that needs to be talked about. That thing is both adorable and silly, and so very cute. That something in The Teddy Bear Museum. Yes, N Seoul Tower as a teddy bear museum, and I loved it a lot more than I expected to. I loved it not only as someone who adores stuffed animals, but as a former history major as well.

The Teddy Bear Museum tells the history of Seoul with, you guessed it, teddy bears. It's divided into two different halls, one that covers Seoul's past, and the other that covers its present. There are human sized teddy bears dressed up as important Korean figures, both ancient (Seong Seok-lin, who was one of the founding fathers of Seoul) and modern (two of K-Pop star Psy, one Gangnam Style version and one Gentleman version). There are Korean paintings recreated in 3D by using teddy bears. They're traditional scenes, of course, featuring dramatic Korean images, in frames, just like if they were the originals. They were certainly the most random part of The Teddy Bear Museum, but it was actually the most unique feature of all.

The biggest exhibits are the scenes from life in Korea, both modern and medieval. Teddy bears in traditional clothing show dioramas of the building of Gyeongbokgung Palace, memorial services at Jongmyo Shrine, a royal wedding and even a traditional open market place. There are then those that show how Seoul has changed, such as Geoncheong Palace being the first palace lit by electricity in 1887, the modernizing of the military by introducing firearms and the first tram that came to Seoul in 1899. Finally, there are scenes of modern Seoul. There are teddy bears shopping in Meongdong and Dongdaemun, teddy bears roaming the zoo in Seoul Grand Park, cultural demonstrations in Insadong, teddy bears strolling along Cheonggyecheon Stream, a demonstration at Seoul City Hall Plaza and a limo pulling up and surrounded by a protection detail at Cheongwdae, the presidential house.

The dioramas are functioning ones. They move, they light up and they make sounds. They're scenes, and the details incredible. They're so intricate, and it's amazing because they're quite small. It was cool, seeing these scenes of places where I've gotten to visit in person through my first year in Korea. I was surprised and delighted at how much I loved The Teddy Bear Museum.

There's one other thing I have to tell you about N Seoul Tower, and that's about when you should go see it. I've already told you about the amazing view during the day, but I also have to tell you about the amazing night view as well. The view from the plaza (I was out of the tower by that time) after the sun went down was spectacular. The sky stayed midnight blue for a long time before it finally went black, and the million different lights of Seoul twinkled and sparkled below us. From where I stood, I watched the sky go dark and the lights all pop on through Seoul, and it was beautiful. The view wasn't the only bright thing. Once the sun goes down, the tower lights up. At first, it's a show. The lights flash different colours, lighting up the length of the tower. Animation is projected onto the tower, such as cherry blossoms falling down it. Finally, after five or so minutes, the show stops and the tower is lit up in a solid blue lights, and stays that way until the tower closes at midnight.

If you're going to go to N Seoul Tower, then make sure you go later in the day. Go when you can experience both sides of N Seoul Tower, both the day and the night. Skipping one of them, not being able to see one of these beautiful scenes, would be a shame.
If there's one Korea is good for (and believe me, it's good for many things), it's the shopping. Shopping in Korea is spectacular, though it can sometimes be difficult to find clothes and shoes that fit. The fashion in Korea is interesting, and the shopping experience reflects that (a warning- on many stores, the sales clerks will follow you around, so close they're basically touching you. It's not out of suspicion, but to be there the minute you need (or they think you need) help. It can be flustering, and more than a little uncomfortable). There are shopping areas everywhere, and I've briefly mentioned a few in Seoul in previous travel guides. For now, I'm going to narrow it down, and tell you all about my three favourite areas for shopping: Itaewon, Myeongdong and Insadong.


First up, Itaewon. Itaewon is, not to put too fine a point on it, the foreigner district of Seoul. An American military base is located very close by, so a foreigner rich and friendly environment eventually popped up right alongside the base. It's not only foreigner friendly for North Americans, but other nationalities as well. If you're in Korea and desperately need to hear some English, Itaewon is the place for you. Most of the people who work in the area of the special tourism zone speak English. There's even a big arch at the beginning of the street that welcomes you to Korea, and blocks on the sidewalk that gives a country's name (in Korea, English and the language of that respective country), capital and flag. There's an international feeling in this area that you just can't ignore.

There are three major things that make me enjoy Itaewon, and two of them have to do with food. If you're craving some goodies from back home, you're in luck- Itaewon has a ton of international food markets. These markets have anything from soup, to baking packets, to chocolate bars. There's even non-food products, such as deodorant, that are hard to find in Korea. There are a lot of simple things from back home that you just can't get in Korea. For me, it's the sweets. I love sweets, and the selection of them available in Korea is limited. In Itaewon, I can get some of my favourites, from peanut butter cups to Starburst. Out of all the international markets, it's Highstreet Market that I'd recommend the most. One word of warning however- because these things have to be specially imported, they are pretty expensive (in both Korean and Canadian terms). That said, it's more than worth it, for a little taste of home every once and awhile.

On the topic of food, if there's one place in Korea that I love to eat out in, it's Itaewon. Not only is there the usual western food (including fast food like McDonalds), but restaurants from every country you can imagine. On one wonderful Sunday last October, I took part in a food scavenger hunt, and my team found food and drink from no less than twenty-three countries in only four hours, and we didn't even begin to scratch the surface of what's available. There's even a poutine place somewhere in Itaewon, though I have yet to find it. In Itaewon, I've tried food I never would have dreamed of trying before, and it was wonderful.

Lastly, something that is pretty dear to me. That something is reading, and I bring it up because of the English bookstore, What the Book? While regular chain bookstores normally have an English section, What the Book? is completely English. It is both a new and used bookstore, which is superb for someone like me, who reads so many books and needs a place to bring them afterwards. The selection is amazing, and there is every type of book imaginable, both fiction and non-fiction. It's also possible to order books from them, both in the sore and online. Those books can be picked up at the store or delivered right to your address. Basically, it's all very simple. If you're a reader and in Korea for a significant amount of time, What the Book? is a place you need to get to. It is, without a doubt, my favourite spot in Itaewon.

Second in our tour of the best shopping areas in Seoul, is Myeongdong. Myeongdong is great for a number of reasons, one of them being the stores that are there. There are a lot of western brand stores that are there, such as H&M and Payless Shoes. The western brand stores? They carry western sizes. If you're in Seoul and need new clothes, Myeongdong is one of the few places that you're guaranteed to find something you can work with. For a shopper who isn't the average Korean size, Myeongdong is the place for you.

For all that the western stores are nice (and can be a God send), they're not the reason I love shopping in Myeongdong. I love shopping in Myeongdong for the stands. Lining the street, there are stands set up, selling a wide range of merchandise. Anything from K-Pop (Korean pop music) memorabilia, phone cases, scarves and cute socks. Cute socks are a weakness of mine, and the stands of Myeongdong are where I buy them. They're cheap, they're cute (I have nearly all the Avengers, Batman, Mario and some Disney Princesses) and they don't take up a lot of space. For the socks alone I would recommend Myeongdong to you.

Myeongdong also ranks in the top three because, once you're finished your shopping, there's a place of historical significance right there that you can go and see. That something is the Myeongdong Cathedral. The cathedral is small compared to some I've seen, but it's no less imposing with its tall steeple and brick exterior. It was the first brick church built in the gothic style in Korea, back in 1898 (construction began in 1892, and the site was used for worship from about 1784). The crypt in the cathedral holds the relics of martyrs who died in the widespread persecution of Christians in 1839 and 1866. The first Korean parish priest was appointed pastor in 1942, and in the 70s and 80s, Myeongdong Cathedral was a focal point for the movement to democratize Korea and to improve human rights in the country. Myeongdong Cathedral is like a glimpse of the evolution of the Catholic church in Korea, and the impact it had in shaping the country.

In the daytime, the Cathedral is an imposing sight. At night time, it's serene. Despite the fact that it's right beside a busy shopping area that comes alive once the sun goes down, it's silent near the cathedral, but for the faint hum of hymns being sung inside (if you come at the right time). The area behind the cathedral is a small pavilion area, where the Grotto of the Blessed Mother holds a statue of Out Lady of the Immaculate Conception, who the cathedral is named after. One doesn't have to be Catholic to see the beauty here, or to feel the peace. And it was a peaceful place. Sitting there in the near dark, with the only the sound being muffled by the church walls, I felt serenity. I felt the same calmness that I felt that day I sat down in Bongeunsa Temple. For all that the two places represent two different religions, the beautiful feeling they left you with is very much the same.

Services were going on at the time of my visit, so I wasn't comfortable going inside (that last thing I wanted was to disturb anyone worshipping) to see the interior of the cathedral. It felt like an intrusion, no matter how much I would have loved to see the beautiful stain glass windows that I've heard are inside. In the end, that's alright. I got more from visiting the outside of the cathedral than I ever would have expected.

On that rather spiritual note, it's time onto our third and final shopping area. That area is Insadong, and it is, by far, my favourite. If you want to buy anything even remotely touristy, Insadong is the place for you. Insadong's main street, Insadong-gil, has everything and anything that you could possibly imagine, and all of it is at a good price. From post cards, to magnets, to handcrafted traditional paper and clothes (called hanboks), Insadong has it. Not only does Insadong have it, but it's very often that you'll see a lot of it being made right in front of you. You'll walk into a store and see the owner, bent over and creating what it is they sell. Sometimes it's not even in a store, but a painter sitting on the sidewalk and painting a paper scroll or fan. The artwork is stunning in Insadong, and the pottery, mostly celadon but other kinds as well, is absolutely wonderful.

There's one store in particular that I need to tell you about, because I think it's the coolest thing ever. In Insadong, there are a number of shops where you can get a name stamp, which is where you get your name translated into Hangeul (Korean writing system) and carved into the bottom of a stone stamp. It's so interesting and a really unique thing to have (or give as a gift). While there's a number of places to get them, there's one store in particular that I'd recommend.

Myun Sin Dang Pil Bang (art shop) is managed by a married couple who are pretty famous artists in Korea when it comes to traditional Korean art. It's a store that's been passed through generations, and the quality shows. Not only are name stamps made here, but it's also a calligraphy shop. The shop is also of note because a number of famous people have gotten art from the shop. The most notable is Queen Elizabeth II, but Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, a queen consort of Spain, a prince of the Netherlands and a Costa Rican president have all stopped at the shop over the years. On top of the famous people who stood in the shop before you, there is an excellent and large collection of rock stamp designs to choose from, and the owners always do amazing and timely work.

It's not only the stores that make Insadong such a great place, but the atmosphere. It's the atmosphere that makes it one of my favourite places in Seoul to visit. There's always performers -singers, dancers, instrument players- on the street. Street food is sold from little carts and stands, and more than a few of the workers sing and dance as they do it. Parades march through Insadong, from the lantern floats in the Lotus Lantern Festival to a small parade to advertise a bamboo festival. There are even small demonstrations or booths set up around social issues, from raising awareness to the importance of schools in South East Asia, to ending racism and even China's policy of returning North Korean refugees to North Korea. I've learned a lot about issues important to Koreans, and best of all? No one is pushy, be it protestors, street musicians or store keepers. Insadong is fun and relaxing, and a great place to just take a walk in (if you're up to handling the crowds).

So there you have it! Three shopping areas that are a must visit if you ever find yourself in the Seoul area. Happy travels!
I've mentioned it before, but in case the little factoid didn't stick in your mind, Seoul has five different major palaces. The first one of them I ever got to see was Changdeokgung Palace, which I devoted two travel guides to a few months back. The second of Seoul's palaces that I was able to spend a day at was Deoksungung Palace. You'd think that, once you've seen one Korean palace, you've seen them all. You would, of course, be so very wrong. Each of the five palaces has one special thing that sets them apart, one thing that makes them different, and Deoksungung Palaces is no exception. In fact, the thing it has that's unique is something I haven't seen anywhere else in Korea.

Deoksugung began its life as Gyeongungung Palace and the residence of one Prince Wolsan, older brother of King Seongjong of the Joseon Dynasty. It wasn't until the palaces were destroyed by fire during the 1592 Japanese invasion, that Gyeongungung became an official royal palace. It was the temporary palace for King Seonjo and then a secondary palace for King Gwanghaegun after Changdeokgung Palace was finally rebuilt in 1615.

Deoksugung was the interesting scene in history, where Korean King Gojong decided to establish his own empire, the Great Han Empire, in 1897. It was Gyeongungung this self crowned emperor took as his primary residence...and it was Gyeongungung that was downgraded to a mere residence once Gojong was forced to relinquish his throne in 1907. There's more to that story of course, filled with intrigue and political manoeuvring . His forced abdication came in the wake of Gojong secretly sending a message to the Hague Peace Conference in 1907, asking the international community to help restore Korea's sovereignty (they weren't interested). When the Japanese found out, they forced Gojong to abdicate, and basically exiled him to Gyeongungung to keep him from having any influence on his son, the new king. It's at this point in time that the palace was renamed Deoksugung.

When I first visited Deoksugung, I very unexpectedly came at a wonderful time. I know it sounds funny, but I actually stumbled across Deoksugung. I was walking down the street, and then all of the sudden, there was the front gate. It was pushed back from the road, on a corner and hidden behind trees. It's not a lie to say I was legitimately surprised to see it there. It was about as understated and unobtrusive as a Korean palace complex can be. I stumbled across Deoksugung on the way to an art exhibit, and didn't have time to explore. I did, however, have time to stop and watch the changing of the guard ceremony I came across.

Changing of the guards, both re-enactments at historical sites or actual military, is a pretty common thing. Interesting, of course, but not exactly rare. While the re-enactment of the Joseon changing of the guards may not be unique in the history of the world, it is absolutely stunning. It was absolutely beautiful to watch, all because of the colours.

Bright reds. Deeps blues. Vibrant yellows. Deep purples. Midnight blacks. Neon greens. Shiny golds. Those are all the colours moving around in precise military formation. The colours were on bright banners, and mixed together into uniforms to separate soldiers into roles and ranks. The uniforms were not only made up of spectacular colours, but patterns as well. There were designs in the fabric, multi coloured rope and feathers on hats and a variety of weapons -bows, arrows, staffs, swords and these long pike-like things- all made this changing of the guards a visual feast for the eyes.

On top of the uniforms, there was the military ceremony of it. There was the banging of the ceremonial (and gigantic) drum, the music of other instruments, marching, inspection and other orders. Each member played their part perfectly, and for a moment, it was possible to believe that you had taken a step back in time.

That was the first time I came to Deoksugung. The second time, probably a month or so later, I made sure to give myself time to explore. I didn't catch the changing of the guards again, but I did get to see the rest of Deoksugung.

Like all Korean palaces, there is a main throne room, where ceremonies and other official events were held. This throne room is Junghwajeon. Tragically enough, it was this very throne room and courtyard where, after Gojong was tricked and forced to abdicate, his son was coroneted. It's the definition of adding insult to injury.

An interesting feature at Junghwajeon (and other versions scattered through the rest of the palace) is a very inconspicuous pot. It's a flat bottomed jar, not even all that decorative. It's called a deumu. It's interesting for two reasons. The first is its purpose. Its purpose was to chase away any evil fire spirit that was looking to burn the palace down. If a fire spirit was to see itself in the water, it would run scared (on a more practical matter, a big jar full of water would be very useful if a fire did break out amongst the wooden buildings).

The second interesting feature is the inscription. The inscription is Chinese, and it means 'ten thousand years'. This inscription wasn't allowed to be used by anyone but the Chinese emperor during the Joseon Dynasty. When the Great Han Empire was declared, that rule went right out the window- since the Korean king was now an emperor in his own right, he decided he was just as entitled to it.

Next up, we have Jeukodang, where the only (traditional) two story building in the whole of Deoksugung. That neat architectural feature is interesting, but basically bringing up Jeukjodang in a way for me to introduce an awesome historical woman. Let me introduce you to Queen Inmok. Queen Inmok was the wife of King Seonjo (14th king of Joseon), and after her stepson Gwanghaegun took the throne (after removing the brothers he thought were a political threat to him, he deposed the dowager queen and put her under house arrest in Seogeodang, the building beside Jeukhodang. Nothing says influence like being put under house arrest by someone so you can't be a political threat. Ten years of house arrest later, Inmok had the last laugh: When he was dethroned (by Prince Neungyang, who actually went to get Inmok's approval to ascend the throne), Gwanghaegun was forced to kneel before the dowager queen as he was question about his crimes...just before the royal seal was given to the new queen.

Told you she was awesome.

Now, onto what makes Deoksugung noteworthy (besides being a palace that housed royalty, was home to politicking, attempted assassinations - more on that later- and historical upsets). The particularly interesting parts are the way the modern west and the traditional Korean mixed. There are three buildings that show just how interesting that is. The first building mixes Korean and western perfectly, and that is Jeonggwanheon. It was designed by Russian architect A. I. Sabatin back in 1900. The foundation has roman-like pillars, but on top of those pillars are traditional Korean designs. It's on the veranda that Gojong enjoyed a nice cup of coffee. Which brings me to that assassination attempt.

While staying at the Russian legation (at this point Korea was attempting to open up to the world), Gojong had his first cup of coffee. Like many others before and after him, it was love at first cup. From then on, the coffee just kept coming. That love of coffee made it a perfect drink to put some poison in. Gojong's former interpreter - who was misused his power and was banished for it- cooked up his revenge plot, putting posdon in the coffee of Gojong and the crown prince. Gojong didn't swallow, but the prince did, and he suffered the effects for the rest of his life. They did, however, survive.

Jeonggwanheon is a mix of western and Korean, but there are buildings that take it a step further. Seokjojeon and the area around it are western style buildings through and through. It's a sheer symbol of a Korea that wanted to modernize. The two buildings are straight up neo-classic architecture, looking like political buildings in the US. There are huge pillars, multiple floors, massive staircases and white marble. Gojong and his wife lived here, and there was a reception and audience hall. It was a building fit for a president or prime minister, a far cry from the traditional palaces of a Korean royal couple. At the time of my visit, Seokjojeon was under repair/renovation, so I wasn't able to go inside and look around. It was a shame, but luck wasn't completely against me. While I wasn't able to go inside one modern style building, I was able to go into the other.

The other has actually been turned into the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. I'll be the first to admit that contemporary art is not my favourite. Unlike other art forms, I like them on a piece by piece basis, not as a complete movement. There were some spectacular pieces in the spacious, two story and gorgeous building, and there were some I wasn't particularly fond of. My personal enjoyment aside, it was an excellent collection, all done by various Korean artists. If you're already in Deoksugung, it's worth taking a look.

Outside, on a beautiful, grassy lawn, there is one more uniquely un-Korean feature. That feature is something as simple as a fountain. Granted, it's a well crafted, detailed and elaborate fountain, but still a fountain. Unlike traditional Korean fountains, this was an actual fountain, not a waterfall feature. Koreans believed that water, by the laws of nature, is meant to flow down. For all that water sprays up in a fountain, it falling back down isn't the same as flowing. It's also different because it's located in the front of the building, not the rear.

For the most part, that is the palace of Deoksugung, but for full disclosure, it's not technically all of it. While what I've described is located within the palace walls, there are a few remains found outside. The palace used to be bigger than it is now, extending into the current city hall and Seoul Plaza area. While there's only a few things to see outside the walls, if you have the time (I didn't), you should go check them out.

Deoksugung is an interesting place, a mix of old Korea and the modern west. It was a sign of an attempt to modernize, to open to the world at large. To me, it actually perfectly symbolizes the Korea I've come to love -an ancient country full of vibrant tradition and beauty, while still offering everything I could ever want from to world outside, from the land I still call home. It's a meeting of two different worlds, and as someone who's currently living in both, it felt quite welcoming.
Like many people out there, I have a list. It's a list of things to do before I die (a whooping ninety-nine, with sixteen crossed off). Like many people out there, bungee jumping is on there. Another item on there is white water rafting. So when the opportunity to do both came up, I took it.

Interestingly enough, this particular adventure had me backtracking into previous territory. The area where we did it the rafting and bungee jumping is actually in the non- militarized areas of the DMZ. The first thing we did on that half bright, half overcast morning was meet up in Seoul and make the drive to the DMZ. The first stop was the rafting. We drove up to another end of the canyon I visited during my first DMZ trip (for a refresher, go back and read the DMZ part two). It was a wide canyon with a river running through it, and we got onto these big yellow raft on the big, lake-like shore.

Before I begin, let me give you a word of advice- bring a change of clothes...preferably one you're comfortable being wet in. I was an idiot and made that mistake. My rafting trip was spent in wet, heavy jeans ( I at least had enough sense to buy water shoes- another must). I attempted to roll them up, but it was a pointless endeavour. I ended up drenched, and that was before I decided to go for a swim.

So we got ourselves into our rafts, paddles at the ready, and pushed off. In the face of full disclosure, I have to admit that the rafting wasn't what I expected, and thus was a little disappointing. My version of white water rafting and the Korean version of white water rafting are very different. I still had a blast, but it wasn't white water rafting, more like rafting lite. It wasn't enough to make me cross that item off my list.

My favourite part was the river itself. It was absolutely stunning. Green -trees, grass, flowers- not only the banks high above us, but creeping down the side like wallpaper as well. The water was calm in some places and rougher in other, and it made for a less than smooth journey...which was just the way I liked it. Despite the crazy uncomfortable life jacket, helmet that didn't fit at all, and the very not a boat, I still closed my eyes and pictured myself elsewhere. I pictured myself sailing down the Anduin in a boat of Elvish make. I pictured myself on a boat to Hogwarts, excited for my sorting. I pictured myself on a river heading to a mysterious plateau to explore rumours of prehistoric monsters. Basically, I let my imagination run wild. I put myself in my favourite things.

Besides my journey into dream land, there were quite a few other things I enjoyed. A raft full of cool people, where we just chilled and got to know each other in a healed atmosphere. We weren't the only raft, and not the only group. It was a bust place, with a ton of Korean groups as well. With that many people, a water fight was inevitable. It started between using our paddles against another raft in our group. It was only a matter of time before we drew some Koreans in. Let me tell you- middle aged Korean women are fierce.

Remember when I said I was drenched? That's where it all began. It came next when we beached ourselves for a bit of a rest. Rest or not, it wasn't just ten minutes of just lounging around. There was a rock over cropping that went over the water far enough it was safe to jump off. It was about three metres high...which doesn't look all that high from down below, but a hellva lot higher looking down. That said, I called it practice for what was going to come later, and took the plunge.

Before then, it had probably been at least a year since I had gone swimming. It was very hot out (as Korean summers are wont to be) and a beautiful day. The unexpected swim was lovely, jeans and all.

It wasn't the only time I went swimming. Later on, as I'm pretty sure is tradition with boat excursions every where, we rocked back and forth to flip the raft over. Good news- it was freaking hard, so let's congratulate the makers on their safety standards. Eventually, after some serious rocking (I was one of the last ones who managed to hold on!), we got the thing tipped. Tipping into the water really shouldn't have been that fun, but it was.
For all that it was a rain to overturn the thing, getting back into the raft while still in the water was surprisingly easy. All you had to do was grab the rope on the side and pull yourself up, little upper body strength required. Thank God for that, because it would have looked terrible if I was caught floundering like an idiot.

It was a pretty long time before we made another stop, but that was okay. I talked about the beauty of the river already, but I should really mention the water itself as well. It was mostly calm, with a steady but not particularly strong current. It wasn't even necessary for us to paddle most of the time, only when we wanted to go anywhere but straight, or if we hit a rough spot. There were a number of rough spots, definitely white rapids, just not as many as I was expecting...or as rough as I was expecting. While I wish it had been more of a white rapid variety, it was still a great cruise.

Our last stop was on the rocky shore line near the end of the river trail. Koreans are big on their mountains and all the freshness that tends to go with them. Especially the water that comes from a fresh mountain stream. I myself love water from fresh mountain streams. Coming down from a close by mountain, was water from a spring. We stopped to sample it. It might sound cliché, but it was truly cool and refreshing. The water tasted, for a lack of a better word, what I imagine clean to taste. It was freezing, which was great on a hot day (not so much when I got splashed with it).

After a refreshing drink, it was a race to the finish. I mean that literally. The three rafts from our group got back onto the water and lined up side by side. Then, when a whistle went, we all took off. The first group to reach the end won (though there were no prizes to be had, expect gloating rights). We all paddled hard as we could, yelling encouragement. I put my Cadet drill expertise to keep everyone in time. It helped, but heavy paddling for a continued amount of time is no small feat. While we led for a good long time, but alas, we eventually fell behind. All was not lost, for our valiant efforts still brought us in at second place (and a close one, too).

As we hauled the raft out of the water, and up the gangplank and onto a truck (and damn if the thing wasn't heavy), our rafting adventure came to an end. Now came part two of the adventure, and this one, I'm glad to say, didn't disappoint. At all.

Not that far away, there was a bridge over looking a river (possibly the same I was just on). On the side of the bridge, there was a two story building/tower. On top of that tower was a platform. That platform was for bungee jumping.

I steeled myself as I climbed up the twisting metal staircase. I kept telling myself to just keep walking, to take one step at a time. I'm terrified of heights. The entire thing was almost petrifying me, but I kept going. I couldn't turn back, not when there were other people there to do the same. I couldn't stand thinking of myself as a coward, let alone others thinking it. So that, along with my innate badassness, kept me going.

We reached the top, and the first step was getting all the harness equipment on. That made it real, and even more terrifying. The equipment was uncomfortably tight and in the most awkward places. The guy double checked, then triple checked, everything (which I am so very grateful for, since it gave me a little more peace of mind), and then I got in line.

There were about seven of us who were going to do it (and all seven of us did), and I ended up last in line (which was purely coincidental). We all stood there, nervously shuffling and trying to pump ourselves up. We laughed and joked, dealing with the fact we were all nervous as hell. Then, when the first person was up, we fell silent for one moment, before we began cheering her on. It took her awhile, and I don't blame her at all, so we counted down to five for her. When she kept putting off the jump, the guy eventually gave her a push.

The tradition of counting down continued for each jumper. It was a great way to psych yourself up, and no one paused after that first girl. One by one, they went. Being last was both a blessing and a curse. I salute the girl who went first, because I couldn't have done it. With each new person, I was shown 'This is safe!' ... but with each new person, the rope got a little more worn. It was a nerve wracking contradiction.

Then, something happened. When there were maybe three people left in front of me, I stopped shaking. All the nerves, all the worry, faded away. A sense of calm came over me, and I wasn't scared anymore. I guess everything in my just admitted that this was going to happen, so there was no point in stressing over it.

Then, it was my turn. My anxiety was gone, even as I stepped up to the platform. I didn't look down, knowing that that would end me. I put my toes right to the edge, and looked out at the expanse of empty of air I was about to throw myself into. There was only one person left to cheer for me, one of the group guides who wasn't jumping, and she diligently did the countdown for me. I wasn't actually listening, since I needed to prepare on my own.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I told myself if was time to pull a Niori (my alter ego, who is everything I want to be) and face my fear. I was doing this because I was afraid, because courage is doing something despite fear. I counted down from three, only calming breath matched with my heartbeat, and then I jumped.

I'd like to say I was graceful, that I went with a quip or some epic stunt. That would be a lie. I made what had to be the most embarrassing sound I have ever made. Then I wasn't able to make a sound, because after a split second, I was in a free fall. I fell so fast it felt like I was in a hurricane, with the wind roaring in my ears. It felt terrifying and exhilarating all at once.

Then the bungee chord snapped back, and I hated that part. It made my stomach lurch, and it was horrible. The first snap was the worst and the biggest, and that was the part of the experience I despised. Then, after two more smaller jerks, and I was hanging upside down, swaying from side to side, over the river.

Then the laughter started. Full stop, hysterical laughter, brought on by a mix of adrenaline and sheer disbelief that I had just dived into nothing but air with only a rope tied around my waist. I kept laughing, even when the man came out on a boat and got me down. I kept laughing all the was to the bus.

All I could think was 'I did it...I actually did it'. The adrenaline rush from that thought was amazing, let alone when it was added on top of the one from the sheer physicalness. I've never felt that revved up before, so I can completely understand why people become adrenaline junkies. I can't say I blame them.

I stopped giggling, eventually, but kept smiling like a loon basically the whole way home. Why?

One more down. Only eighty-three more to go.
It was a few years ago now that my best friend told me that I just had to read Christopher Moore’s “A Dirty Job”. Not only because it was a good book, but because it was also a hilarious book. Now, I was a little sceptical- how could a book about the Angel of Death be hilarious (I had no doubt that it was good, because Courtney has impeccable taste in literature)?

“A Dirty Job” begins with Charlie Asher, a ‘beta-male’ who runs a second hand store and is pretty happy with his life. Then, his wife suddenly dies after giving birth to their newborn daughter Sophie. So far, a complete tragedy, am I right? Basically, things get strange from that point on. There’s a man at his wife’s bedside, and Charlie really shouldn’t be able to see him. Why? It turns out the man is a quasi-Angel of Death, and it turns out that Charlie has just been recruited for the job.

The best part of the book, for me, was Moore’s take on Death. Unlike most interpretations, Charlie here is not Death per say. Instead, it’s Charlie’s job to collect items which contain a newly dead person’s essence, and protect it from the forces of evil (who show up and cause trouble for everyone with a great deal of frequency) and make sure those items get where they need to go. Charlie doesn’t cause death, but merely picks up afterwards. It’s a different take on the Angel of Death character, and it’s a well done one at that.

The shenanigans that these characters get into, especially when it comes to gathering items and raising Sophie (who, in fact, does have the powers of a true Angel of Death, showing that Moore hasn’t completely done away with the traditional image), really are hilarious. That is the strong point of the book. There is conflict, drama, bitter sweetness and a touch of heart warming, but the strongest selling factor of the book is still the humour. Even scenes that have no business being funny, are hilarious. So, to sum it up, Courtney was right- I loved the book
Before a friend suggested it to me, I had never heard of Richard Marsh’s “The Beetle”. It came out about the same time as Stoker’s “Dracula” (it was actually initially successful than “Dracula”) and gad many of the same horror elements. After reading it, I not only understood why it was so popular, but why my friend would recommend it.

“The Beetle” is all about revenge. The novel is set in Victorian era London, and though none of the actual actions (with the exception of a few flashbacks) takes place there, the shadow of Egypt plays a large part in the story. Politician Paul Lessingham came back from Egypt with a curse on his shoulders. He went and desecrated a tomb (never a good idea) and now a follower of an (highly fictionalized) ancient Egyptian religious cult, has come a calling. The story is the account of the terrorization of Lessingham, told from the point of view of multiple narrators, who all get caught up in the revenge plot through different means.

This book, without a doubt, is one of the creepiest things I have ever read. The mysterious bad guy (The Beetle- and wow is that ever loaded with symbolism) is creepy. The reader doesn’t even know if he’s actually human, because he does some very, very inhuman things. The creepiest part is the flashback descriptions of what happened to Lessingham back in Egypt. I take it back- it’s not creepy, it’s down right terrifying! After reading that, I can understand why there were some people (or so my friend told me) were way too freaked out to finish the book.

For those of you who aren’t too keen on non-stop horror, there’s also some mystery (a la detective story), romance and action to get you through. Each of those elements adds a little something to the plot. The plot can drag sometimes, but once the action gets going, it really gets going. Last summer, a good friend recommended “The Beetle” to me. This summer, I’m recommending it to you. Enjoy.
As much as I love fantasy, it seems that I don’t read nearly enough books that take place in (to quote Star Wars) a galaxy (or realm/world/dimension/land) far, far away. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I read quite a lot (you’ve seen me gush about Tolkien already), it’s just disproportionate to the rest. That said, this month’s review, ‘Silver’s Edge’ by Anne Kelleher, does indeed take place in a land far, far away.

The land that Kelleher creates is a dual one, with the mortals on one side and the Sidhe (a fancy term for elves, fairies and other Fair Folk) on the other, the two of them separated by a magical boarder that is supposed to keep both sides separate (and it does, for the most part). That boarder is now failing, with goblins spilling out into the mortal realm and war breaking out in both worlds (rebellion of course, because what’s a fantasy story without a good rebellion?). It all comes down to the Silver Caul, which is a magical item that was made by both mortals and Sidhe a few centuries ago to keep the boarder intact and separate. There’s something wrong with it, and it’s leaking the fantasy-type equivalent of toxic radiation that is having an adverse affect on both realms, and the bad guys are using it for war.

The book is written with the old interpretation of the world in mind, where people of the past truly believed that the realm of fairy existed right alongside ours, and the fairy played roles in the lives of the average mortal, usually not for the better. It’s fun to read with this in mind. The fantasy aspects are extremely well written, especially when dealing with the Sidhe. While Kelleher’s take on the Fair Folk is nothing new, that doesn’t take away from how interesting she makes them. The intrigue going on in the Sidhe court is of the very best kind, and it is so very wonderfully written. The characters are also strong points of the story, especially the three lead females. With them, you seem to get examples of the token female characters that make an appearance in most fantasy books/movies/video games/etc. First there’s Nessa, the mortal blacksmith who’s a tomboy and the one driven into action. Then there’s Delphinea, the elf maiden who is all elegance, beauty poise and strength. Finally, there’s Celicy, the mortal queen who has a Guinevere-Lancelot type forbidden romance while trying to protect her land/people. Those three characters fill cliché spots, but they are written without being cliché themselves.

All in all, ‘Silver’s Edge’ is a well-written, otherworldly fantasy novel. It’s a bit of a dark read, but it’s still a fairly easy one with an intriguing plot, characters and world building. If you ever feel like stepping into a realm/land/dimension/etc far, far away, I’d recommend Silver’s Edge to do it.

Mudfest

Apr. 15th, 2017 03:56 am
Every year, something crazy goes down in Boryeong, South Korea. That something is dirty...so very, very dirty. Before you go and take that in the wrong way, I mean dirty in the literal sense. It's all about the mud down in Boryeong. For a week every mid- July, it's all about Mudfest. Mudfest is exactly what it sounds like. It's a festival completely and utterly devoted to the mud that comes from the mud flats all around the area. It's not ordinary mud, of course, because where is the fun in that? The mud is said to be rich in minerals and great for the skin (I can attest to that, having had the mud smeared all over me, and felt how soft my skin was afterwards. Also, it works as excellent sunscreen). It's been made into a wide range of cosmetics and beauty products. In fact, Mudfest was originally dreamed up as a publicity stunt for those cosmetics. It didn't take long for it to morph into the beach party to end all beach parties. I've been to two Mudfests, both the 16th and 17th annuals. I had a blast both years (though I managed to hurt myself the first year, which put a damper on things), and for a few reasons. There's a lot more to Boryeong than just the mud.

The festival takes place in two different areas- the mudflats and Daecheon Beach. First up, I'll go over the mudflats and the activities there. The mudflats are where they get the actual mud for the festival. It's taken from the mudflats and shipped over to the main festival site at Daecheon Beach. This is the source, so obviously the festival organizers had something set up there.

The mudflat experience began with everyone changing into ridiculously oversized old army fatigues. Given the fact that the whole experience is marketed as mud boot camp, the fashion seems quite appropriate. There was a mudflat military experience (complete with crawling around in the mud and covering our faces to work as camouflage), an obstacle course, some mud wrestling in these giant tube things and even a game of mud soccer.
It was a good hour of playing in the mud like we were a bunch of wild kindergartners who snuck outside on a rainy day. It was fun and silly...and a little dangerous. I actually ended up hurting myself pretty badly while at the mudflats that first year (I limped for over a month). Because of that, I ended up sitting out on the mudflat experience this year (once bitten, twice shy and all that). Ever with the unfortunate injury, I'd still recommend the mudflat experience so very much.

A note on that, however. You can't just show up at the mudflats and participate. Only certain groups are able to get permission (they want to protect the source of the mud, of course) to go. So, if you're at Mudfest and want to do the experience (and you should!), it's something you'll have to look into and do some research on before hand. It's completely worth it...just be careful!

After the mudflats, it was onto the beach. First up, a word on the beach itself- it's beautiful, absolutely beautiful. It's a long stretch of golden sand that leads down to cool blue water. The beach is lovely, and I spent as much time on it as I did in the mud. It was an amazing place to just sit down and read a book or bask in the sun. A lot of people had pitched tents for some shade for their beach day, and some had huge umbrellas they had staked into the ground. There were also a number of long beach chairs with umbrellas providing shade that you could rent. I don't recommend it, since they a extremely overpriced.

Chairs aren't the only thing you can rent. Going to the beach doesn't only mean sitting there. It can also mean taking a dip in chilly water to get out of the sweltering Korean summer heat. You can rent tubes to go out and enjoy the water. Personally, I think it's pointless to rent one. Lifeguarding is serious business in Korea. There are literally lifeguards every few metres, their whistles at the ready. Depending on how rough the water is, you can only do in a few metres. That's not a suggestion- they literally stop you from going any further. One of the days I couldn't even go over my head. It cooled me down wonderfully, but there was no swimming. It seemed a bit of a waste.

Not only is the beach a great place to relax and swim, it's also an excellent place to have a party. One end of the beach is completely devoted to it, in fact. Boryeong Mudfest, for all it's supposed to promote mud products, is marketed as a huge, week long party. There's a giant stage on the beach, and it blasts out music, both DJ and live, through the day and into the night. There's dancing there, and people laughing and playing in the surf. There were food stands and cheap drink stands all around the area. There was a giant 'mud machine' that sprayed out a thin mist of liquid mud over the party goers. It provided a nice way to cool off. It was, as I said earlier, the beach party to end all beach parties.

The party continues into the night where there's a live performance (featuring everything from classical music to hip hop, depending on the night). After the performance, around ten on the first weekend, there's a great fireworks show. It lasts about half an hour, and there were some truly epic fireworks. There were bright explosions of colourful sparkles that lit up the sky, and booms so loud they echoed so much that you could almost feel the vibrations. There were some especially neat ones too, like the one that exploded into a red and blue smiley face. I love fireworks, have since I was a child going to the last Saturday of Old Home Week. They're exciting for me, some of the prettiest lights I've ever seen. Because of that, I hold the bar pretty high for a fireworks show. It's pretty easy to disappoint me...and this one didn't. In fact, it set the bar there for awhile (until a fireworks festival, which you'll learn about someday). That's just how amazing it was.

Now, we come to what the festival is really about. It's all about the mud, and on the plaza above the beach, they set up a mud playground. There are fountains of mud, where you can get yourself filthy before even going into the main area. There is even more mud wrestling in that raft, a mud bath, a mud prison (you go in behind bars and get mud thrown at you) and even a special area for kids. Best of all, in my opinion, is all the bouncy things. By bouncy things, I mean structures that are made out of the same materials as the famous bouncy houses of carnivals gone by. There's two giant slides, where you race up one end (and the stairs up are both steep and slippery) and slide down the other end. There's a long almost obstacle course, where you need to climb, squeeze through small openings and slip and slide your way over flat surfaces before you get to the end. Oh, and it's totally a four person race as well. Volunteers even throw the liquid mud as you go, adding another level to the course (be careful with that- the mud stings when you get it in your eyes, and the volunteers seem a little extra enthusiastic when it comes to splashing foreigners).

Another word of advice (hopefully you're not tired of hearing them yet)- if you're going to go do the mud plaza, go early. Early as in when it opens. It's pretty empty then, but it doesn't take long for a huge crowd to gather, and then there are long lines ahead.

It was glorious and silly. It was a free for all for your inner child, was a blast to let it out to play. It was like we all had permission to pretend we were still children, having fun at a local carnival or theme park. No one was judging or sticking their nose up at the child-like behaviour...in fact, it was celebrated. I loved it, because who doesn't want to recapture a slice of childhood every once and awhile? It brought memories I hadn't thought about in years, of playing in Rainbow Valley or even at the Balloon Festiva rides. They were fun memories to bring up. I couldn't stop laughing the whole time I was there.

Remember when I told you that Mudfest was originally created to advertise mud products? Well it'd be pretty pointless if they didn't have a spot for that, am I right? That's why, on the beach front beside the festival area, there are a ton of tents set up. Like every Korean festival I have ever been to, those tents had things to buy, things to make and even one that gave a whole lot of information about Boryeong mud. I suggest checking them out, since it's quite interesting, and technically the reason you're there in the first place. Another one of my absolute favourites was the coloured mud. The mud is dyed to blue, green, red, yellow and grey, and you can get it painted on you in whatever design you want, basically anywhere you want. I went with a multicoloured upper body design myself, but there were endless possibilities. It was so much fun to walk around so colourfully. Nobody stared, because so many people got it done. A lot of people commented on awesome designs, or asked excitedly where they could get it done. It's a friendly atmosphere, one where it's easy to just start a conversation with someone and join a group to hang out. It's another reason Mudfest is so much fun.
There was also booth after booth selling mud products -make up, skin care, soap and everything in between. Some were elaborate, with designs carved like hanboks or other symbols, and some very simple, just ordinary squares. I bought some, soap to be precise, and I love it. I'm not completely sure if the claims they make about the mud are true, but I do know that it makes my skin feel wonderful. It is completely Nicole approved.

All of those tents are amongst a waterfront devoted to sea and mud. There are huge statues of seashells and even more of massive sea creatures. Then there are statues of little people mascots (including Ariel and Eric from The Little Mermaid) with a mask of mud on their faces. It was a cute area, with even more adorable statues. It was great for photo opportunities and a nice stroll. The giant statue that says 'mud' really proves that this place really is all about mud.

Mudfest is probably the most fun thing I've done in Korea. That's what it was- sheer unadulterated fun. Unlike many places I've been to -historical and cultural-, this is an event dedicated to having fun. It's one big party, and that's what makes Mudfest unique amongst Korean festivals.
When it comes to straight up theme parks, Korea isn't exactly bursting with options. While there are a handful of fairly big ones, none quite reach what we in North America would consider a top of the line, Canada's Wonderland-like, place. That said, the country does have quite a few excellent ones, three large ones in particular. The one I'm going to talk about today (and the one I went to first) is Lotte World. Now, when I say that the amusement parks here don't feel very big, I don't necessarily area wise.

Lotte World, far all that it feels like a Crystal Palace on steroids, is actually the world's largest indoor amusement park. Not only is it a multi-floor indoor theme park, but also an outside area, built on an artificial island in the middle of a lake. On top of that, it's located right in the heart of Seoul, which makes it easy to get to (it's right on a subway stop) and also incredibly busy.

I'll admit that I'm not really much of an amusement park person (theme parks -a la Disney- are a different story), but it was a rainy day and my friend had two free tickets. It wasn't a wasted trip, and I had a blast.

Since it was pouring rain, my friend and I were mostly limited to the indoor section of the park. The inside of the park is designed with a very quaint, old European feel. The buildings are light pastel colours, built to look like they belong in a quaint little fairy tale (complete with a small castle, a windmill and a traditional, with white, pretty horses carousel ). There's an adorable hot air balloon ride (the basket and top is made to look like a hot air balloon, and you ride it on a track above the whole indoor part of the park). Being more than a little scared of heights kept me off that one, but it's perfect for anyone who likes having a bird's eye view.

There's also a great mix of rides there, one for everyone. There are the thrill rides, adventure rides and kid friendly rides in the indoor area of the park. I myself am more partial to adventure rides (I'll do thrill rides, but they're not my cup of tea), and there were a number of them to amuse and entertain me.

The first of those rides was the Jungle Adventure. This is one of the three water rides that snake through the park (again proving how psychically large Lotte World is). As the name implies, it's jungle themed. The water is a raging river through a dense jungle, one that you ride down in a giant, round inflatable raft. You spin, bump into things and get soaked by splashing water. I'll admit that the effects and decorations are incredibly cheesy (an ongoing theme), but it was still a lot of fun.

The second water ride I went on was called The Adventure of Sindbad. It was much like Jungle Adventure in terms of set up (you float down an underground river, albeit in a boat this time), but it follows an entirely different theme. The ride takes you through Sindbad's (the mythical hero from the Middle East who was basically the Arab version of Odysseus, in that he sails the seven seas fighting monsters, going to magical places and being all heroic. If you haven't heard these tales, I highly recommend going and reading them. They're quite fun). This ride tells one of those stories- one where Sindbad has to save his fair damsel (cliché, I know) from the evil magician who kidnapped her. All the dialogue (on TV screens and blasted over loud speakers) is in Korean, but you don't need to know what's being said in order to understand what's happening (one of the blessings of overacting). The scenes set themselves up quite well, and you follow Sindbad's journey through dangerous, magical caverns as he faces off with his enemy in the magician's evil palace. The scenes are full of goofiness and good effects (including ones that surprised you and made you jump, myself included), and pretty good animatronics. If you have to pick between this one and the Jungle Adventure, go with this one. The story aspect makes it more entertaining, at least in my storyteller opinion.

There were other adventure rides, but we weren't able to go on because of long lines. The two big ones were the log fume (dinosaur themed, which still makes me sad I didn't get to go on) and Pharaoh's Fury, where an automatic jeep ride takes you into the heard of a cursed Egyptian tomb to find the pharaoh's great treasure (another ride I was sad not to go on, being a history geek and all).

A word on the rides and those long lines. A number of the bigger rides off fast pass tickets. There's a ticket machine just outside the entrance. You pull one of those tickets and it gives you a time. That is the time (ours was roughly an hour or so later) when you're guaranteed a spot on the ride. They're incredibly handy, because it means you're getting on the rides you want, but you're also free to do something else as you wait, instead of just standing in line. I highly recommend using the Magic Pass. It will seriously let you see more of the park than if you just decide to wait the old fashioned way.

Now, I know what a lot of people go to amusement parks for. Most people go for the thrill rides. You'll be happy to know that there are plenty of those. Most are in the outside area (I'll get to that later), but there are some inside as well. There's a swinging ship and 360 degree drop ride, but it's the French Revolution that the biggest line was for. That is Lotte World's indoor medium sized roller coaster. While the coaster may not be large, it is still exciting. The ride begins with a sheer, stomach dropping out from you, drop. It only gets more dizzying from there. There's more than one loop upside down and there is more than one time where you're completely sideways and you feel like you're legitimately going to fall off. It's probably not even a minute long, but it's a minute where I kept my eyes slammed shut and practically screamed my throat raw.

There's also more than enough child friendly things to keep any kid entertained as well. The bottom floor of the park is a complete kids' zone. There's an Alice in Wonderland themed playground, so 3D theatres -one a beluga and the other a miner ride-, some bumper cars, spinning baskets and some cute cars you can ride in a circle. There's also a stage where you can catch a puppet or magic show, if you or the children get sick of rides.
Now that I've covered all the rides the interior of Lotte World has to offer, it's time to talk about what else it has. Like any good park, it has an equally good theme. The theme changes at Lotte World, but when I went, it was Carnaval (the celebration in Rio, not the traveling fair).

There were, of course, decorations -bright, shiny and over the top-, but that not where the Carnaval theme really shone. It shone in the parade. Twice a day, there is a parade around the centre of the main floor, and that is spectacualr (I only saw Carnaval, but I'm sure the other themes are equally impressive). It starts with the blaring of music, rythmic and exciting. It makes you want to dance, to move your hips to the beat and just let loose. Then the parade itself starts, with a double decker bus -excited children below, dancers and mascots above- leading the way. Then the dancers come. It's obvious they're from all over the world, and that all of them are incredably talented. They could move in more ways and with more grace than most of us (myself included) could only ever dream of doing. They danced with the music, some of them on the floor and others on numerous floats (my favourite being the throne made of peacock feathers). Their costumes were absolutely beautiful. They were amazing colours- bright yellow, blue, pink and purple. They shone, with rhinestones covering so much of them and making them sparkle. They were adorned with giant feathers, some used to make it look like wings and others used to give the appearence of wearing a helmet or a headress. They were elobrate and beautiful. That also describes the parade in its entirety.

While I wouldn't say it makes you feel like you're in the heart of the real Carnaval, it might just be one of the places that come at least a little close while outside of Brazil. The parade isn't the only thing that stands out besides the rides. It's probably something that will have more appeal to the adults in the party (unless you have a kid who was just like me). On the upper floor of the park, there is a folk museum (yes- Korea has a museum in an amusement park. It's one of the reasons I love this country). It's a fairly large one, and some areas are quite elobrate. There are the usual (though no less exciting to see) artifacts- weapons, pottery, tools and various outfits. They're interesting, but also varations of what you've seen in any half decent museum in Korea. The best part are the minitures. Now, I know dioramas aren't everyone's thing. These, however, are detailed beyond belief, bigger than pool tables (per) and there's enough of them to fill a room that is basically the size of a gymnasium. There are so many different scenes -a royal wedding, greeting foregin dignataries, ancestor ceremonies, villagers celebrating a harvest festival...if there was an everyday/regualr event in Koran history that you can think of, it was there. It wasn't only there, but moving, lit up and in perfect detail. How amazing they are only becomes more impressive when you climb up the quite big fortess wall and see them all laid out below you. It was pretty mind blowing.

Of course, there's more to offer inside. Sores selling various souviners (mostly related to the park mascots, which are Lotty and Lorry, cartoon raccoons), resturants (a food court featuring delicious Korean food -I reccomend the dunkas- more traditional Korean resturants in the folk museum, and if you're craving some western food, a T.G.I Fridays. There's laser tag, a small haunted house and an arcade). If you want a little taste of a Canadian pasttime, the world's largest indoor ice rink is also located in Lotte World.

I've given you the run down of all that Lotte World interiour has to offer, but we're not quite done. For all that I spent very little time there, Magic Island (exteriour) still deserves a nod. Magic Island continues the European fairy tale feel. The buildings still have to old European look, and there's even a big fairy tale castle (think a smaller version of Disney World's Cinderella's Castle). It was a nice set up that contrasted nicely with the rides. This is the place where the extreme rides are, though I didn't get on any (I just ate before going out and I'm uncomfortable getting on park rides when they're wet).

There's a secondary roller coaster called Atlantis that loops around the whole area. The gyro swing, which is a monsterous cross between the merry-go-round and swining ship (you're strapped into a circle that spins while simoltaniously swings back and forth- my stomach turns just turns thinking about it), the gyro drop (guarnteed to introduce your stomach to your throat during a freefall), a bungee drop (giving you three drops, not just one a la the gyro drop) and the Comet Express (much like the swings, where your seat spins freely...prepare to be dizzy).

There's other rides of course, ones that won't make you potentially throw up. Some laid back rides (monorail around the park, a classic European car rides for kids, a swan ride tunnel of love). There's a few rides inside buildings, and since it was still drizzling, one of those is what we chose.

Fantasy Dream is definetely geared more towards kids, but the line was short (and we weren't the only adults) and it was dry. It's basically Lotte World's version of It's a Small World, complete with cheerful, moving/singing dolls and animals. It's set up along a track that you slowly ride on. You pass through different areas/rooms, each with a different theme going on. Candyland, Santa's Workshop, Magical Forest...it's got it all. There's also a section for dolls/bears of the world, where different countries are represented in rather cliche ways. America has a football game going on, Korea has the traditional wedding, amd Brazil Carnaval. It was amusing, though a little creepy. It was also a good way to kill twenty minutes or so.

Amusement parks may not be my thing in general, but Lotte World was a good time. I enjoyed going, and would go back if the oppertunity came up...but hopefully one with better weather.
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