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5 April 2005
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KLB - 4-day Weekend

Korea must be the only country in the world where teachers and students, depending on the school, get 4 days off for Arbor Day (because it fell on Tuesday). I could understand it more if everyone was actually out planting trees, but I highly doubt they are.

I've been to busy enjoying the mini-vacation to update. Julie and I just got back from a trip. I got the notion that we rent a car. Julie looked online and right near where we live is a rental place. We got a basic car for $50 for 24 hours. They even deliver it to you. Unfortunately once Julie was faced with the reality of driving, she panicked. Sweat beaded on her nose. "I can't do it," she said. "Can you drive?"

I hadn't driven a car at all in the last few years and, except for the few times I've gone back to America, I basically I haven't driven since coming to Korea in 2000. "No problem," I crooned.

It actually went much better than I thought. First we stopped and got gas. Americans, stop complaining. We paid $30 for half a tank. I was shocked. Back home that would have filled my Honda Civic twice, though maybe not anymore.

Anyway, Julie ran over to a book store while I was getting gas and picked up an atlas. We jumped on highway 100, which is just down the road from here, and headed out of the city and into the country. The spring weather was very nice and it felt good to be on the open road. We drove towards Choon Chun, a city famous for dak galbi, (basically chicken and vegetables mixed with chili-pepper paste - see here for a picture -) and stopped after a while at small country town in the middle of nowhere. There, amazingly enough, was a Pizza Hut, the inevitable McDonald's and what the hell, an outlet center for Levis and Addidas, why not? I ended getting a good pair of sandals for half price.

We trudged along (sure wishing I had a camera with me) and out of that town and found some small back roads that twisted and turned through the mountains. Instead of going on to Choon Chun, and since we were so hungry, we decided to stay where we were. All of the back roads are spotted with pensions or minbaks where you can sleep. Pensions are basically houses that you can rent, while minbaks are one-rooms, usually with no bed but lots of clean blankets and pillows. The pensions are a good deal if you're with a big group of people, but since it was just Julie and I, we stayed in a minbak. The room, inside a large, modern styled building, was actually very nice and, because it's an unusual holiday weekend, we paid just half of the busy-season rate and were the only people in the whole place. The view outside was pleasant: a mountain, a rocky stream and, of course, the inevitable site of bags and bags of garbage. You think they could have stored them near the building instead of right by the scenery, but that's the how it goes, I guess.

I forgot to mention that we picked up a load of groceries in that small town before: sam gyeop sal, potatoes, mushrooms, garlic and kimchi. Of course, I got a large beer for myself. The sun went down and we sat outside near a barbecue and cooked up the delicious meal. It was dead quiet save for the crackle of fire and the gentle swoosh of water from the stream.

Though we only stayed one night, it was once of the best times we've had together. It was so quiet and peaceful. We went to bed at 10:00 and slept until 8:00 in the morning, at which time we woke up to the sound of birds. The air was cool and clean with the subtle trace of smoking firewood. We went for a nice long walk down the back road before hitting the highway again. Then we drove through some beautiful scenery - well, as beautiful as it gets here anyway (so many peculiar and unsightly buildings littering an otherwise fantasic view) to Choon Chun. We stopped an older man at a bus stop and asked for directions to the famous dak galbi street. The ajushi jumped right in the back seat. Turns out he was going near there himself.

I thought the meal was delicious, but Julie got pissed off. First of all, you'd think they were selling sex the way the restaurant ajummas hound you the moment you step on the famous street. "Come here, come here, hurry hurry," hoards of them shout at you in Korean. We picked the one restaurant that didn't come out to yell, but the ajummas inside were kind of rude in a different rite. They dumped the mixture on the frying pan, handed Julie the spatula and basically never returned until we asked for a bottle of Coke, even though the place wasn't crowded. That and Julie thought the dak galbi tasted like it does in Seoul but was nearly twice the price. Oh well, that's typical of what you can expect at any touristy place, I suppose. Still, I enjoyed the experience. I stuffed my face!

Finally we headed back toward Seoul. Julie, who had been unbelievably good at guiding us using the atlas (we basically drove all the way to the minbak based on her reading the maps) now had me turn the wrong way on highway 100. That's when we got into a mess. We had to pay a toll just up ahead and then we got off the highway and but couldn't get back on the right way. We had to keep going straight for about 20 minutes. Turns out we were headed for Seoul anyway, but on the city highway, not the nice expressway that goes around the city. Julie suggested we just push on. So, I got my first experience driving through the heart of Seoul. Let me tell you, it's maddening. If you are prone to road rage, never drive in Seoul. Basically nobody can wait a flipping second and they try in anyway possible to cut you off if they can get an inch ahead. Also, the traffic was intense, even at 3:00 in the afternoon. It took us over an hour - a tense, stressful hour - to drive what would have taken 10-15 minutes on that expressway.

Well, Julie has lunch on the table - rice, soup, and a load of side dishes - so I'll cut this short. All in all we had a fantastic time and will be renting a car again. The freedom of being able to drive exactly where you want was nice and we never would have enjoyed the scenery and found that secluded minbak location without one. The next time, however, we'll be sure to go make the correct turn on the expressway.


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