Sunday, January 27, 2013

Seoul Zoo/Beomgye

My favorite picture from the day.
 Last weekend, I went to the zoo in Seoul on Saturday, and hung out in Beomgye (pronounced Bum-Gay, always good for a laugh) at night.

The zoo in Seoul has its very own subway stop (Seoul Grand Park, Exit 2), and is therefore extremely easy to get to. The zoo is located in a valley in the mountains, so there were some pretty gorgeous views throughout the day. There was also a ski lift that you could ride from one end of the zoo back down to the entrance, and a train that we rode to get from the zoo entrance to the beginning of the actual exhibits.

I went with my coworkers (Dan and Charles) and some of Dan's friends. It was a pretty fun day, and I love that I am constantly meeting new people. Keeps life interesting!
The group: Dan, Dave, Harris, Tristan
(and Charles is behind the camera taking this picture).

Tickets for zoo admission and the ski lift/train.
It's still incredibly strange for me that everything is in a foreign language. These tickets were for two completely different things, so when we got the admission gate I just handed both of them to the ticket taker. She gave  me a knowing look, and handed the one I didn't need back to me. At least it doesn't seem surprising to people that I have no idea what things written in Korean are for, but I sometimes wish I was fluent so I could shock some people.

The zoo is separated into four different paths and animals from different continents were grouped into clusters. We began by meandering towards the African animals section (elephants and giraffes are my favorite animals at the zoo!) but an old Korean man stopped us before we went too far to let us know that the African animals were all inside. Makes sense, because Korea is very cold right now, and luckily we were able to see more of these animals later on in their indoor pens.

Gorgeous mountain view.
I guess I'm enamored with the mountains
because I've seen so few of them!

This was an enclosure for a multitude of birds
(notice the netting above so that they couldn't escape).
There wasn't really a fence between us and them,
so I had to resist the urge to walk closer.
Siberian tiger, he loves the cold!
This one is obviously a model, just hanging out on top of a table looking pretty.
Totem poles in the South American section.
Bird sculptures on a clear day.
 My favorite part of the zoo would have to be the bird exhibits. There is a room there that is the home of many parrots. The room they live in is separated from the rest of the building by plastic flaps so they cannot escape because they roam free! I made few new parrot friends that really enjoyed chewing on my hair, as you can see here:

They really liked to bite!
If I didn't have gloves on, my hands would have been bleeding.

New friends.

Hahaha, this picture still makes me laugh.
I didn't know what these guys were going to do next.

New favorite food, my hair.
The zoo is huge. It would take a solid eight hours at least to walk to every different exhibit. We were there for about five hours and got to see many different things, but there was much we didn't see. When the weather is nicer, I definitely want to head back to spend more time just wandering around. In the summer they have an awesome rose garden near the entrance, the National Museum of Contemporary Art is very close by, and there is also a theme park called Seoul Land. Apparently Seoul Land has at least 40 rides including roller coasters and movie theaters as well as revolving temporary exhibits. I definitely need to check that out!

Perfect photo opportunity.

There were a few signs in English,
usually not completely correct. I enjoyed this one immensely--
"Do not tap on the glasses. No Flesh!!"

Horsing around with the elephants.

Charles the Turtle.

Dan riding an ostrich!
We're just big kids at heart...

After hanging out at the zoo for a big part of the day, we decided to journey to Beomgye for the evening. I haven't posted to many pictures of a typical Korean street view, but it pretty much looks like Las Vegas on any given main street. The buildings are all multiple stories, and there are so many bars, restaurants and norebangs vying for customers that it can be a bit blinding.

Book vending machine in the subway station!
It's a nerd's dream!
I was way too excited to see this.
Sadly, the books were all in Korean.
View of Beomgye right off the subway.
Beomgye street view.
Pretty impressive, right?
We went to restaurant there and tried a different popular Korean BBQ dish called galmaegisal. This is pork 'skirt-meat'. It looks like bacon, but it's redder and less fatty. It's extremely similar to samgyeopsol, but it's much less fatty and I think it tasted so much better!

These food pictures always look so amazing,
and the food usually tastes as good as it looks!

A close up of dinner,
plus a nice background shot of Cass,
which is like Korea's PBR.
It was a fun day with a fun group of people. I'm glad I got to go and see something different. I cannot wait for March to roll around and nice weather to come Korea's way! I feel like there will be so many more options for things to do on the weekend when it is not cold, snowy, and a bit treacherous due to icy sidewalks.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Worst. Surprise. Ever.

This is Charles. He is one of my coworkers. I think Charles was trying to look handsome in this picture--I think. If he is, it isn't working, so this is just conjecture. After eating our meal, I think that I should say that this is a face of disgust. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself...

So let me explain. Charles and Dan, my native English speaking coworkers at school, decided today that when we go to restaurants after school, we should try to always go to a new place. This is a great idea, don't get me wrong, but there is always a margin of error when exploring restaurants that have not been vetted by someone else. We wandered around Byeongjeom for a bit in search of a different restaurant, and settled on an inconspicuous one that appeared to be a galbi restaurant. When we walked in, the place was empty. We sat down at a table, and tried to ask for a menu. Unfortunately, they did not have a picture menu, just a menu written in Korean on the wall. None of us spoke Korean, so we told the staff to give us anything (this was harder than you might imagine--I had to pull out my Korean/English dictionary on my phone to try to translate). The waiter laughed, and promptly began putting together our meal. The lady working there brought out the starters, which is very typical. The starters themselves were definitely not the usual ones:

One of the items was grass, I'm pretty sure, coated with a bit of chili sauce. Not too bad, had a nice fresh flavor to it...

One of the other starters was this, which I think is raw meat and either octopus or squid or skin... This was the first sign of the strange dining experience to come. Charles and Dan, ever the adventurous culinary pupils, tried both of these items, whereas I (the chicken of the group) steered clear.

Dan trying the skin/octopus/squid,
which he said was rank.
He wasn't able to choke it down.

Charles trying the raw meat.
I think he was just as scared as he looks.
These types of starters are a bit strange, and the three of us were beginning to worry about what kind of restaurant we had walked into. After a bit of discussion, we had ruled out a dog restaurant (because those places usually have pictures of dog on the walls or on the front just so people are aware). After a little bit of a wait, what came to us was this:

Up close, this food looks pretty suspicious, but I went ahead and tried all of it. I'm pretty sure that the first thing I tried was liver, which wasn't awful. Dan took a picture and sent it to one of our Korean coworkers to find out what it was, and about halfway through the meal she sent a message back and said that we were eating internal organs--entrails, intestines, guts, innards and giblets. After knowing for sure what it was, I lost most of my appetite. Charles almost choked to death on a bite of his after we found out, and Dan just chuckled. The food wasn't the same once we all knew what it was, and this is one of the only meals I've eaten where there has been food left at the end.

After doing a bit of research, I'm pretty sure that we at gopchang bokkeum, which is grilled intestines of cattle or pork. It was very chewy and a bit fatty, but the vegetables were all great! This is not a dish that I will knowingly try again, but there is a first time for everything...even eating internal organs.

But seriously, worst surprise ever. It was an unfortunate first experience for adventurous restaurant nights!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Delicious is what this is!
What is pictured above is gamjatang, one of the most delicious dishes with a not-so-delicous translation: pig spine soup. I've been hearing about gamjatang for ages from friends! I mean seriously, they were singing hymns about dinner! I soon learned that gamja means potato and tang means soup in Korean, so I expected a simple potato soup. After it had been talked up for weeks, someone finally told me what was in it...pig spine. This wasn't what I would normally deem as a magic ingredient, but I must say, it is quite tasty.

When they finally told me what this dish actually contained, what I pictured was a small, soup bowl sized serving with a little spine sticking out. Thinking back on it, that would mean the pig was as small as a gerbil, but hey, I can't help that my imagination isn't exactly logical. What was served up was a large pan of red broth with what looked to be a dinosaur spine sticking out, topped with glass noodles, green leaves, and stalk mushrooms. There are also some potatoes and other vegetables in the broth, just waiting to cook and be mixed together. It gets its red color and delightful spicy flavor from hot peppers.

Jen and Adam were the ones to help me along with this milestone. The restaurant we went to for this dish was a traditional seating restaurant, which means you sit cross-legged on the floor on a cushion. This is more comfortable than you might think--heated floors keep you warm, they often hand you a blanket to keep you even warmer, and if you are lucky enough to have a wall at your back it's pure heaven.

Sides served with the soup--kimchi (of course), carrots, jalapenos,
pickled radish, rice, and some other items.

Fully cooked and ready to eat!

Close up of the pig spine. Seems unappetizing, but after a little work,
you would be surprised.
So basically, after you order the size that you want of your soup, they bring this huge pan out and set it on the burner that is in the center of the table. (These tables are one of the most amazing things invented. They should have them everywhere!) The vertebrae are separated into sections of three or four, and boiled at high temperatures so the meat is so tender it will fall off the bone. Each person doles out a bit of the soup for themselves, selects a spine cut, and uses their chopsticks or a similar tool to remove the meat. Then the bones are placed in a small waste bucket that sits on the table, and your full enjoyment of the soup can begin! 

Not only is this dish nutritious and delicious, I hear that it is also a hangover cure. I know alcohol comes up in almost every blog, but it is such a huge part of life here that I simply cannot help it. No worries, friends and family, I shall not return an alcoholic--I almost always only drink on the weekends! And I will be able to offer you many cures and fun ways to drink when I return as well.

This is just one of the many strange and fabulous dishes that I have sampled in Korea, and I hope to try many more. I think that there will be two exceptions to this "try anything once" rule I've been following:

This is Urechis unicinctus, AKA the "fat innkeeper worm", AKA the "penis fish". In Korea, it is eaten raw and wriggling with salt and sesame seeds. And oh yeah, it's still alive. You can see these worms at almost any store with live seafood outside (which is many, many places), so they must be a bit popular. This was one of the first things I was shown (by Dan and George, always educating me one what really matters!) in Korea.

In China, this is usually stir-fried with vegetables or dried and powdered, which I personally believe must be more palatable.

It is also used as bait. And how could bait not be delicious?

Disclaimer: Not my own picture, borrowed
from the internet. This is something I should NEVER
have a picture of!

This dish is known as sannakji, or small octopus. When you order this, a live octopus is plucked from a tank of warm water, brought to your table, and its tentacles are one by one cut into small pieces. There is still electricity pulsing through their limbs, so they wriggle around on the plate. The octopus is still alive, so the suction cups on the tentacles try to adhere to your cheeks, your tongue, your teeth, and if you're not careful, your throat. With my luck, I would try this one time and get choked by the last dregs of life of an octopus tentacle!

Fortunately, this seems to be a novelty item, so I don't think many friends will be trying to force me to try it any time soon.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

5 Strange Things About Korea

Things in Korea are quite different than things back home in Wisconsin. Here's a list of things that struck me as strange

1: Parking
The two cars in the middle are completely blocked in!

People park everywhere here! On the sidewalk, both ways on each side of the street, and as you can see from the above pictures, they often block each other in. Apparently, every car has a slip of paper int eh front with the driver's phone number, so if a car needs to get out, they can just call the person that is blocking them and that driver will come out and move their car. It's a strange system, but it works!

2: Limbo in bars
Setting up the limbo poles.

People LOVE limbo.

Notice she's going through with two thumbs up!

Limbo can happen any time, any where! I've been at bars at least twice where they just randomly whip out the limbo poles. People love it, and it usually happens when there's a large amount of people in the bar. Almost everyone lines up to go through, and it gets pretty competitive!

3: Doors
I know you might assume that doors cannot be too complicated, but let assure you, you are wrong. There are usually two doors that go into places, and half the time one of them is locked. There are signs saying which one doesn't open, but about half of them are in Korean, of course. This means that there is about a 25% chance that when you are trying to walk into or out of a place, you will smack your face on a door that doesn't open. I think that I have finally learned my lesson from this after almost breaking my nose on a glass door a few times.

There are also sliding doors here that are mystifying if you have never seen them before. I was a few paces behind a lady that had just walked in, and the door had closed by the time I walked up to it. I stood in front of it, waiting for it to open, but it didn't. There was an older lady on the other side, about a foot away, who was staring at me as I confusedly looked at the door, reached to the side to maybe use my Hulk strength to pull it open, and then she stepped forward and hit a magic button that opened the door that was located on the side. I had no choice but to walk in and pass this laughing old woman because to walk away would have been to admit defeat. Sliding doors here don't have motion sensors, they have buttons. Which I did not expect.

4: Ramyien

If I were to mention Ramen noodles to someone back home, they would probably immediately thinking of cheap packets of noodles that college students live on. Here it's called Ramyien, and it is still cheap noodles, but it's an absolute staple in the diet of anyone who lives in Korea. They have the plastic wrapped packets of noodles, but they mainly have Ramyien in styrofoam or plastic containers that you can take on the run. Almost all convenience stores have hot water taps, so you can just walk in, pick up a container of Ramyien, add the hot water in the store, and eat as you walk to the next place. You can also ask the clerk for chopsticks if you don't happen to have any at the moment. It's definitely not unusual to see people eating out of these containers on the street. The "flavor" is never in English, so I've always gone by the picture on the front to try to avoid the fish ones, because they are disgusting. Most people have one flavor that they think is absolutely amazing, and they won't touch the other ones unless they're desperate.

5: The crazy schedule of children
Children here are crazy busy. They get up in the morning and go to regular school from about 8-2 during the day. After they have been in school all day, many children have various academies after school or after dinner. There are academies for everything--English, tae kwon do (which is very typical for children to be involved in), math, science, hip hop dance...everything! We have children at the hagwon (the word for private academies) until 8:50 at night, for example. Many of them study with us for 2-3 hours. According to some statistics, it's not unusual for parents to spend over $1,000 per child per month on education. And this is throughout their entire education, from elementary through high school, and then they have to pay for college! Children are so busy studying and going to different academies and everything that they are always exhausted. Some nod off during class. When I ask children where they want to go for vacation, they tell me that they want to stay home and sleep instead of going anywhere! Any child back home that thinks they have too much homework is absolutely wrong, it could be much, much worse!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Drinking in Korea

Hey guys, here's a link to a pretty fantastic 20 minute video that explains the drinking culture quite well: You should just have to click on it for it to take you to the website, then hit  play!

On the side of a cup from the convenience store--
I have no idea what it says, but I do know that she is drinking on the toilet.

Speaking of toilets, one of my absolute favorite bathroom doors.

I love signs like this.
I get the idea of what they are trying to say,
but it's just a tad bit off.
Cat's Bar: Where to leave your memories.
Everything in this video is so true! Koreans work and study so hard during the week, it's no wonder that they feel the need to let loose a little bit. And there is no exception to that rule for the English teachers that are here from a bunch of different countries. It also doesn't hurt that there are no open container laws, and it is permissible (and not unusual) for people to drink everywhere.

Alcohol is sold 24 hours at convenience stores, and it is so common for people to walk in, buy a bottle of soju, and drink it in the store that the clerk often has an open sleeve of paper cups to drink from. Bars  close very late, and there is not a set time that they must close. So if the bar that you happen to be at decides to close at 3 am, there is also another bar close by that is still open that you could go to. For me, I've tried to restrict drinking to only weekends because dealing with the crazy children while hungover is one of the worst ideas in the world.

A pretty famous bar called Tunnel Night.
I guess girls come here, a waitress asks if she's up for sitting by
a guy who will buy her drinks. If she says yes, she finds an interested guy,
then leads the girl over and she keeps him company for the night
(not necessarily in a dirty way!).
This is Agwa.
Agwa is the only Coca leaf liquor in the world.
Coca leaf is the raw material that cocaine is manufactured from.
Don't worry, it takes complex chemical processes to actually manufacture
cocaine, so this booze does not have the same effect that the drug does.

Lady soju, also known as waymisu.
Quite tasty, it has a much better flavor than regular soju.
A bottle of soju and makgeolli, also known as makkoli (respectively).
 is made by fermenting boiled rice,
wheat and water. It is a cloudy white drink
that has a bit of a chalky texture.
I didn't care for it at first, but it's growing on me.

They have Jaeger bombs here too!
I'm sure my friend Casey, who absolutely LOVES Jaeger,
will appreciate this!
Many bars here are self-serving. They have large coolers of different beers, soda, and full bottles of booze. Patrons just go up to the coolers and grab what they want. There are bottle openers on the table, and chilled glasses in the cooler to use as well. If you want any shots or bombs though, you have to get it from the people who are working there. Once you are finished drinking, you just bring all of your empty bottles to the cashier and pay for them then. It's a pretty nice system, nice and efficient. The only drawback is if you are with a large group and someone leaves early, if they leave any bottles behind their friends must pay for them.

Koreans also believe that if you eat while you are drinking, you are much less likely to get a hangover. Many times the workers there bring us large bowls of popcorn without us even having to ask! Many bars also have some small appetizers available for people to order, and there are tons of restaurants that are open very late specifically to cater to drunk people.

I've also heard that there are several stages to a good night of drinking. The first stage is drinks with dinner. This usually includes shots of soju and shared bottles of beer. The next stage is drinking at a bar, or at a few bars if you feel like skipping around. The third stage is the norebang, or karaoke. This stage can be quite fun, especially if you are with a good group of people and you are a little bit tipsy. The next stage is drunk food, which usually happens when the sun is rising! Koreans are quite adept at drinking, and a large part of their culture hinges upon drinking with friends and colleagues.