The past 10 days or so have been spent in the company of Elizabeth’s parents, visiting Korea (and Asia) for the very first time, from England. When they touched down at Incheon International Airport a week ago last Thursday the number of people in Korea with Elizabeth’s accent skyrocketed from one to three. Aside from how nice it is to be reacquainted, if only briefly, with someone from home – to hear stories firsthand about little English goings-on – the visit forced Eliz and I, in an effort to give them a proper taste of the place, to keep busy – there were a few ‘firsts’ for us, too.
The first few days were a whirlwind: in between meeting the Korean class crew, two consecutive nights at a noraebang (and the subsequent necessary recoveries), a visit to Bulguksa temple, a delicious Indian lunch at our friends’ apartment, a trip to the beach and first experiences of Korean BBQ, kimchi, jjigae, bibimbap, soju, makgeolli and my Korean cooking there was little time to catch our breath. Bulguksa is probably my favourite temple I’ve seen so far. It’s not too dissimilar aesthetically from most of the others, but its location – deep in the hills surrounded by nice-looking vegetation – and its layout – vaguely pyramidal with ascending levels having decreasing areas – appealed to me. We also travelled to nearby Seokguram Grotto, where I learned that you can use the word ‘grotto’ after words that aren’t ‘Santa’s’, and we saw a giant holy Buddha.
Weeknights were spent trying to work out which were the cheapest and tastiest restaurants that would cater to all tastes while offering the most authentic insights into Korean cuisine. This was not easy, and in fact one night “the girls” went for chip butties. Meanwhile, “the boys” ate at one of those ubiquitous street vendors – but instead of dining outside stood up, we went inside, something I’ve never done before. I was only able to vaguely translate about half of the menu, and our options were narrowed further when we were told there were no bibimbaps or soups available, but we settled on sundaewith kimbap and a rice dish to accompany. Sundae is animal intestine filled with blood that I think I’ve had before; and this time it came with liver and other entrails. I won’t be orderding it again. After eating, Eliz and I would try to keep up with her parents at a bar or a cafe serving makgeolli, but mindful of the fact that we were working while they were on holiday, we often abandoned them early with garbled instructions on how to get home in Korean.
The following weekend we went hiking in the Yeongnam Alps – a series of (ten?) peaks exceeding 1000m in height. Knowing that the plains atop Sinbulsan are one of Ulsan’s famous 12 scenic sites, we decided to attempt to scale that one. Having learned from our culinary mistakes the last time we went up into the mountains, we equipped ourselves with sandwiches and snacks galore; but set off pretty late into the day, meaning we had to quick march all the way to the top. The first half hour was tough and sweaty – there were steep climbs up rocky steps and slippy slopes – but the subsequent 90 minutes or so were trekked on a windy road, which occasionally afforded us impressive views of Eonyang (in West Ulsan) down below. At the end of this was a sort of giant natural crossroads, with paths leading directly up to two peaks as well as indirectly to the rest of the Alps. The natural beauty of the place (and the plains) was spolit slightly by the huge wooden veranda and convenience store that had been built there – but otherwise how would we have got ourselves a well-deserved melon ice lolly?
I tried to eat said lolly whilst hiking the remaining kilmoetre or so to the top of the shorter peak (fading daylight and our legs would only allow us to go this far) and learned that you can’t eat while walking uphill. So, Elizabeth and I lost her Dad and spent half an hour looking worriedly for him only to be reacquainted at the benches outside the shop with taunts of how he made it all the way but we didn’t. The following day was spent resting our weary thighs at the beach in Busan and then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we were bidding farewell once more to a reminder of home, and a reminder of just how different the life we lead here is. I hope they had a good time!