Week 8: Green Tea and Salt Water

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WARNING! This is going to be a long one. I suggest you get comfortable. Of course, with all the pictures I added, maybe it won’t feel as long to read through this as it took for me to compile everything. You’ve been warned though. Proceed at your own risk; this was a busy weekend.

Let’s start at the beginning…

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I realized that May 17th was a holiday (Buddha’s Birthday) and, as a result, I had a three-day weekend. What should I do? I wondered. I should go somewhere, but where?

An acquaintance from Emily’s church mentioned she would be participating in a dance competition that weekend in Boseong (보성). It sounded like a few other people would be there, too. I’d heard of Boseong before. It’s known for the nearby tea plantation which supposedly grows the best green tea in Korea. The Green Tea Festival was even happening that week (May 14-19th).

I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a huge fan of green tea. It tastes like grass. A festival where everything from topical products tfood (ice cream and noodles, etc), had green tea as a major ingredient…well, it sounded a bit dull. Now a jasmine tea festival would’ve been a different story.

The prospect, however, of having company, a simple goal, and no alternative plans made this trip look quite appealing. I did a little online research and the more I looked, the more interested I became in green tea.

Here’s a little in the way of some basic information:

 Boseong (보성)

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  • It’s a quaint town. Much smaller than Gwangju (광주). You can actually count the number of foreigners who live here (12) and they all know each other.
  • You can take a direct bus ride from Gwangju to Boseong for 8,400 won ($7.55). It takes 1-2 hours depending on traffic. Since this weekend was a holiday, it took close to 2 hours to get there.
  • It’s quiet and feels calm. I never realized how much noise and energy saturates the air in Gwangju until I got away from it.

Boseong Daehan Dawon GreenTea Plantation (보성녹차밭 대한다원)

  • A short bus ride away from the town of Boseong, sits the Green Tea Plantation. It’s a large area. Rows of tea plants cover the mountains and hills in this area: a whole valley dedicated to growing tea. I’m not sure who it all belongs to (there’s more than one tea plantation) but it’s a lot of tea no matter how you look at it.
  • The tea festival in May marks the beginning of the growing season. In another week or so the fields will be even greener than when I saw them (the brown spots are bare ares that haven’t acquired leaves yet). The first tea leaves of the year are supposedly the best quality.
  • Festival activities include things like the option of picking your own leaves and drying them. There were also games (archery) and crafts (spin your own pottery bowl and make a wax sculpture molded from your hand). There were tents selling food, objects and anything related to green tea. It all looked pretty fun but we stuck to the purely scenic part of the plantation instead of paying extra for the other activities. I was too busy taking pictures anyways.
  • In the same area as the tea fields, there are a few bamboo groves and some cedar lined paths that are quite lovely.

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YULPO (율보)

  • It’s even smaller that Boseong, or at least, more spread out. It’s only a 10 minute bus ride away. It’d be hard to get lost here.
  • It’s right next to the ocean so there’s plenty of that nostalgic salt-water smell in the air. It’s in a cove of sorts so there isn’t much in the way of waves, but that didn’t really matter to me. The beach on the other hand….well, I know I’ve been in less appealing beach locations and dirtier water but I wouldn’t be giving this one any awards either. Of course, once summer really hits, I probably won’t care anymore.
  • There really isn’t much to see in a town the size of Yulpo but other than the beach, it has one particular tourist attraction. There is a spa there (Yulpo Haesu Nogchatang) that mixes fresh saltwater and green tea to make its own special kind of bath. I imagine it’s pretty much like soaking in a pool of salty green tea. I’ll find out eventually.

So now that you have some context, let’s begin!

Friday morning, I hopped a bus from Gwangju to Boseong. I traveled with Sandy, a Korean woman from Emily’s church. Last month she invited me (and several others) to dinner to celebrate her birthday. This was also her first time going to Boseong.

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Justine met us at the bus terminal there. She’s the acquaintance who was going to take part in the dance competition. It wasn’t until Saturday so we had Friday to just enjoy the sights. She lives in Boseong so she played “tour guide” as we took the short bus ride to the tea fields. 

Rows of tents were set up in the parking lot. They sold all sorts of things from nick-knacks like jewelry and hats to elaborate furniture and practical household items. Of course, there was the obligatory “tea aisle” where there was nothing but green tea for sale.

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We ate lunch at one of the tents and for dessert, we bought green tea ice cream. I’ve never enjoyed my past encounters with that flavor of ice cream but this time it was delicious!

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(Further revision: I have since tried Baskin Robbin’s version of green tea ice cream and came to a disheartening conclusion: I only like what I had at the tea fields. I guess all ice cream was not created equal. This means I may have to start taking weekend trips to Boseong just to for the ice cream!)

We hiked up a cedar lined path to get to the gate. 3,000 won ($2.70) later, and we were in and free to start exploring. Our first stop was one of the bamboo groves. Though steep, the stairs were mercifully short and the view was worth it.

Back on the main trail, we reached the scenic area of the plantation. There’s no shortage of good photo opportunities when the entire valley is covered rows of tea but it helps that this area (that people pay to see) is particularly lovely.

Sandy and I hiked up more stairs to get to the top of the hill. It was a little hazy but you could see the ocean in the distance. I don’t think I’d do it again though. Once was enough. It’s the first time I’ve found that going to the top, doesn’t improve the view. Rather, it was less inspiring than looking at things from a lower level. The best perspective of the tea fields was halfway up the hill where you were amongst it all but could still see the rows above and below you.

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We rewarded our hiking efforts with more ice cream; this time from the store next to the gift shop. It was still good but I prefer the ice cream they sold in the parking lot. We bought some souvenirs then went our separate ways.

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Sandy took the bus back to Gwangju; Justine went home to Boseong to run a few errands before dance practice; and I took the bus to Yulpo.

I didn’t have any grand plans, it was just nice to be by the ocean again. I walked around a little bit, did some people watching, and then took a bus back to Boseong. Justine let me stay the night at her place, since I still wanted to be present to see the competition.

The next morning, I went to Yulpo again but I wasn’t early enough to see the sunrise. “Yulpo in the morning” was pretty much the same as “Yulpo in the afternoon.” The only real difference was the direction of the shadows.

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Back at the tea fields, I bought more ice cream then walked up a different hill to get to the stage where her group would perform. There was a museum at the end of the road and a giant grassy area where more tents and booths were set up. This was where all the people who had picked tea leaves, were drying them. There were more food stalls, free tea samples and in the middle of it all, were four couples getting married in the traditional Korean wedding style…with a large crowd of observers. The dance competition didn’t start until the wedding ceremony was over and several important people gave long winded speeches in Korean. I can only guess at what they said but I assume it had something to do with the competition (perhaps the history of it) as well as a summary of the tea festival and it’s 39 years of history and the significance of it all. I’m sure it was all relevant and interesting stuff to those who cared and could understand.

I would’ve been more patient if I wasn’t already stretched to my limit of human-to-human interaction and was thinking very longingly of my bed at home. Once the dancing started, it was interesting and the music choices were entertaining. I could’ve been convinced to stay longer but I didn’t. By that time, several more friends of hers had joined me and were taking photos and video on their own devices. Justine’s group preformed first and I left after she finished

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I bought a green tea milkshake for the road. When I got to Boseong, I got a ticket for a 3:40pm bus to Gwangju  and then was ushered onto the 3:10pm bus that was leaving right then. The bus driver was pretty determined to overfill his bus. There were already people sitting on each other’s laps and there were literally no seat left. I was too tired to care. So I sat in the aisle along with a bunch of men dressed in full bike gear: down to the padded butts and helmets. One guy kept his helmet on the entire ride. Where are their bikes? I kept wondering.

It wasn’t the worst way to get home and thankfully the ride back to Gwangju was a short one. I stumbled home to my room where my bed was waiting for me, exactly as I left it.

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Week 7: Scavenger Hunt

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Week 7 can be remembered as the week that I participated in a scavenger hunt with a bunch of other expats. One enterprising foreigner (or perhaps a few) put the whole thing together, with sponsors, tee-shirts and a very long list of bizarre tasks for us to complete.

I was part of team Caterpillar. I joined last-minute because I wanted to participate but didn’t know enough people to form my own team. The upside of being thrown into a random team was that I got to meet some people who I might never have otherwise met. Team members were: Valerie, Sarah, Paul, and me. Paul and I took pictures and video of our quests while Valerie, for the most part, led the way.

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 Sarah brought hats to wear which gave us an extra “team” look.

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We gathered around 2:30 to hear instructions and at 3, the race began. We were given three hours to complete as much as we could on our long list of things to do. Our quests ranged from finding things like “a T-shirt for 50,000 won” (roughly, $50) to actions like singing Barney’s “I love you” song to a Korean couple or choreographing a short dance to the loud music that blares from all the stores downtown. Each shop, naturally, has their own playlist of songs. Every challenge could be completed downtown or within walking distance. We weren’t allowed to us any mode of transportation other than our feet and we had to be back not a minute past 6 or we would be disqualified.

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Our team got fourth place so, no prizes, but we had tons of fun!

After they announced prizes we were released from the game. Unwilling to go our separate ways just yet, a few teams went out to dinner in one large group.

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Not entirely sure what this dish was called but it was basically: glass noodles with chicken, sauce and veggies. It was very filling.

We followed dinner by going to an underground arcade with this popular and somewhat dangerous spinning ride. The ride master blasted techno music and controlled the things to make it spin, tilt and bounce. I stayed as strictly a spectator as all but one other person in the group went for a spin. I’m not sure whose idea it was to eat before doing this but it’s a surprise that no one lost their dinner. Their ride must have lasted for at least 10 minutes before it ended. I think a normal ride was at no more than half that length but sometimes being a foreigner means you get extra things for free: a free hour of singing at a noraebang or, in this case, another ride…whether you wanted one or not.

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Afterwards, we trooped to a popular bar (at least to the foreigner crowd) where we commenced to drink and play games with a deck of cards and a complex set of rules. It was actually pretty fun. The noise and second-hand smoke were the only real downsides to the evening. It got to me after a while and I finally decided I’d had my fill. By the time I got home, I’d been out and about for a full 12 hours.

That was enough for one weekend; I evened things out by doing as little as possible on Sunday.

Week 5/6: 25 and Labors Day

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There isn’t a lot to say about the past two weeks. I continue to struggle with finding the best way to use my 20 or 30 minutes of class to make something that is both fun and meaningful as well as cohesive.

Tuesday, April 30th, was my 25th birthday. It passed rather uneventfully though I, thankfully, didn’t feel quite as forgotten as I had on my 22nd birthday. I managed to assign some importance to the day after classes finished. Mom and Dad managed to skype with me that evening, which was wonderful. Kevin (the other foreign English teacher who teaches at one of our branch schools) and I went to a coffee shop and played several rounds of nerts. The tables were too small and the cards really new and slippery, but we managed. It was fun, in that low-key sorta way.

Wednesday was “Labors Day” in Korea so I had the day off. I checked with a Korean person several times and the word does indeed have the ‘s’ at the end. I could have misheard though. It’s possible that they said “Laborer’s” and not “Labors” but that’s what it sounded like.

There’s not much to say about it except that I had lunch with Mieun (my boss) and then had dinner with Kevin. We went to some restaurant he had suggested the day before. They served pork bone soup. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised considering the name of the dish but…there was surprisingly very little meat on those bones and it was a chore trying to find enough. If I had been hungry I would have certainly felt frustrated. By accident, however, I’d already eaten a bit of dinner somewhere else, before Kevin had text-ed back that he was available for pork bone soup.

Instead of saying “Too late!” and rescheduling like most normal people, I decided a second dinner with company was a far better way to end my day. We also ordered beer and soju and I had my first taste of the thing that seems to be such an integral part of Korean culture. I have to say, as someone who’s never been much of a drinker, now I understand how people can guzzle down so much beer and soju in all those dramas without dying of alcohol poisoning.

In terms of nail-polish-remover-and-other-such-strong-cleaning-agents-disguised-as-ingest-able-liquid (aka: hard liquor and similar alcoholic beverages), soju is, by far, not the worst. The beer is really light as well. All it needed was to taste like apples, and I may as well have been drinking hard apple cider. It was very easy to drink.

Needless to say, I felt a bit light-headed by the end. We finished our soup by eating ramen cooked in the broth, then we left. I walked of my buzz and I felt quite normal by the time I got home. Not a bad way to spend my extra day off.

On Saturday, I went to Naju to visit two girls I met at Emily’s church. They work at a small church run, English school. They hosted a chocolate party at their house and invited some of their older students to come. It was refreshing to be around some different people. I even got to blow out two candles on one of the cakes they made as they awkwardly sang happy birthday to me (I told them about my birthday earlier in the week).

Really, that’s all that really happened in two weeks.

Oh, and I signed up for Korean classes. I start this week.