Monday, December 13, 2010

İstanbul Day Three

Once again, we woke up extremely early, although not quite early enough to enjoy the sunrise as we had the day before. However the sky was rather more overcast, so it was no great loss. Once again, we have a beautiful breakfast on the terrace, drinking coffee and tea, eating fresh bread and yoghurt with sweet fruit preserves, watching the city come alive beneath us. If the previous day had been about the dead history of the city--monuments, ruins, and buildings--then this day would be about the living city - the people and commerce of the city. We decided to head to the Grand Bazaar to check things out.

All that notwithstanding, our very first stop was the graveyard across the street from the hotel. It contained a small mausoleum with the sarcophagi of a couple of 19th century sultans; the surrounding area had several other graves and grave markers. It was a small site and sort of wedged into the city, but interesting to see nonetheless. The standard Ottoman grave seemed to be a sarcophagus with an angled peak along the top, and a cylinder covered with inscriptions standing another 3 to 4 feet higher. If US graveyards are like a garden of tombstones, the Ottoman graveyard is more like a forest. Even the most modest of the markers stands a foot or so taller than a man and they seem to cluster together. The overall effect is not unlike a stand of birch trees, with the background scenery tantalizingly difficult to glimpse through the slender white trunks.

Turkish Graveyard

After snapping a few pictures of the graveyard and tomb, we headed west down the Divan Yolu. Although the name more or less means "Road to the Imperial Council", we were walking the opposite direction, with Topkapı palace behind us and the bustling commercial district in front of us. The Grand Bazaar was only a few minutes away and soon we were strolling up to the gates.

One of the many gates into the Grand Bazaar.

It's a large structure: a mall of sorts although very different than what that word brings to mind for Americans. It's the size of a large city block with major paths running through in a rough grid shape. The ceilings are beautifully domed and painted and the sides of the pathways are lined with merchants of all varieties. Major themes for their wares: souvenirs (magnets, t-shirts, ceramic tiles, purses, shoes, jeans, jewelery, etc.) We picked up some gifts for people back home. One vendor had a nice little backgammon set although the initial asking price of 25 lira was pretty high. We did some back and forth and he'd dropped the price down to 15 lira but I was still pretty reticent to buy the thing, but then the shopkeep opened the set up and took out the dice - we would both throw one of them and if i had the higher throw then I'd get an extra 2TL off of the price. He said that it was important that he start the day with a sale in order to be lucky. Luck was with me and I won the toss! So I paid my 13 lira and took the set home in a bag.

Carpets! Lots of carpets!

The vendors at the bazaar are all very friendly and engaging and it's easy for the traveler to get sucked into a conversation. It's important to remember that the vendors are all 'on-the-clock', so to speak. They aren't there to meet new people and have interesting conversations. They are there to move product off their shelves with the greatest profit margin possible. They'll take advantage of your innate desire to respond politely to overtures if you aren't careful. I quickly became inured to the entreaties for attention. A word of advice, though, if you are price matching the same item across several stores the Grand Bazaar is like a maze. If you get quoted a good price at one store - be sure to note where it is so you can get back when you want to buy it!

Immediately outside the covered bazaar and near the Beyazit Mosque is a great little "book bazaar". It was a small square lined with stores all selling books, manuscripts, magazines, and maps. I was completely enamored with the pages from old manuscripts and especially old hand drawn maps from the Ottoman era. But all the pieces that I was really interested in was quite a bit more expensive than I could afford.

İstanbul University.

Just past the book bazaar on the edge of a large open square is the Mosque of Sultan Beyazid II. We came out of the bazaar and took a turn through the courtyard of the mosque. Unlike the larger tourist attractions, this was much smaller and less ostentations, although still a gorgeous example of the Byzantine-inspired domed architecture so prevalent throughout the early Ottoman period. Across the large square stood the Istanbul University. We walked down past the university and through the city, past the Suleymaniye Hamam (a bathouse) and ended up near the Süleymaniye Camii (the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent).

Lovely outdoor cafe near
the Süleymaniye Camii.

By this point, all the walking had begun to take its toll on us, so we found a lovely little secluded cafe near the mosque and stopped in for a break. We sat in the shade next to a burbling fountain and enjoyed our turkish coffee and apple tea while we recharged our energy. We paid up at the cafe and went toward the mosque which was closed for renovation. The mosque's graveyard was  open so we went around the side to have a look at the graves and markers. As we were leaving, an elderly man came up to me and said something abruptly in Turkish. I looked at him blankly and he repeated it more loudly. I said "I don't understand" and he turned away. Some younger men who'd overheard came and took him by the arm and led him away. I think he was asking where the temporary prayer tent had been set up, although I can't imagine that a white guy with the Korean woman could have easily been mistaken for locals!

Süleymaniye Camii was closed for renovations.

We continued on down toward the water until we found he spice bazaar. It was similar to the grand bazaar except (predictably) the focus was more on food then trinkets. We bought a few pieces of fresh "Turkish Delight" (called locum) candy which was very much tastier then the too-sweet variety one usually finds in the States. The spice bazaar opens up down near the waterfront at the "New Mosque". It was full of people praying so we sat on the open steps of the spice bazaar and ate a snack. The weather turned darker and began to lightly drizzle, not unlike Seattle (except for the large Byzantine building in front of us blaring out the call to prayer.

Inside the Spice Bazaar.

Rather then wait for prayer time to be over so we could visit the mosque interior, we decided to walk across the Galatian bridge and visit the northern side of the Golden Horn. We had to thread our way through a massive crush of people and vendors to get into the pedestrian underpass. However, the underpass opened up to the upper bridge level and we ascended to walk across the water past the crowd of men fishing from the railings. We didn't do anything on the other side, just walked to the other side of the bridge and walked back.

Panorama of downtown İstanbul from the northern side of the Golden Horn.

By the time we got back, the prayers had ended and we went into the New Mosque. It was similar in design to the Sultanahmet Camii, albeit with different colors and patterns. Of course, the number of tourists visiting was quite a bit smaller, which was very nice. We enjoyed the growing stillness as the worshipers emptied the building before we also headed out the main doors and turned our feet toward the hotel.

Yeni Valide Camii (the 'New' Mosque)

We dropped off the goodies that we'd bought and took small break in our hotel room before heading back out into the city once more.  We walked down the hill toward the old hippodrome where the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts was located (across the street from the Sultanahmet Camii). It was a small museum but had an extensive collection of fiber arts and calligraphy. We spent an hour or so examining traditional nomadic looms and the ornately detailed calligraphic inscriptions. The museum is probably not terribly interesting to many visitors, but as we were both interested in rug-making and decorative writing traditions, it was well worth the time and entrance fee for us.

Traditional rug and kilim loom.

We decided to have our evening meal at a renowned meatball place on the Divan Yolu near our hotel. We were seated next to a rather obnoxious Greek couple. Well, as I recall it was primarily the woman who was obnoxious. While I couldn't understand the words she spoke it was clear she was finding fault with everthing from the food to the servers to the seating arrangements and everything in-between! I don't know what she was so worked up about, though, because Sally and I had a very pleasant experience. I ordered some kebap, while Sally tried the famous meatballs. It was all started with a first course of lentil soup and a salad. The food was both tasty and reasonably priced so - no complaints from me!

We had a little bit of time left, so we went back to Grand Bazaar for a few final shopping items and then then back to hotel where we packed up and got ready for a 0500 wakeup. Once again, I was quite tired and had no trouble sleeping easily after a long day full of walking the steep hills and cobblestone streets.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Iraq and Back - One year later

I spent all of 2008 and most of 2009 preparing for and then deploying overseas to Iraq with the Washington National Guard's 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team. I've been back for just over a year now, and I wanted to post a perspective on my re-integration.

The Dangers

The concept of service member's reintegration into normal society has been a hot topic lately. There are some very real and legitimate concerns about psychological and physical injuries and the ability of our servicemen and women to cope with multiple prolonged deployments. There has been massive media attention (some reasonable and educated, others not so much) on these issues. And of course the issue of veteran medical care has become politicized and is often mentioned by politicians and pundits alike. I suspect that some of this is catharsis on the national level. We as a society have a latent sense of guilt about how poorly we treated returning Vietnam veterans and in many ways have seized upon this chapter in our national history to do it again but 'get it right' this time. One of the side effects of all this attention, though, is that it feels to the returning vet that there is an expectation of abnormalcy. When people hear things like "1 in 8 returning soldiers suffers from PTSD" or "Military Still Failing To Diagnose, Treat Brain Injuries" they seem to expect that you have some trauma you are dealing with. This of course, can lead to fears of being stigmatized by your service which of course increases the likelihood of non-integration. If it seems like a Catch-22, that's because it is one.

Of course - in the face of all this, the Army tries its best to stay ahead of the game. Part of the redeployment process (that's army-speak for 'coming back home') involves a Post Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA) which screens for possible triggering events for these afflictions (questions like 'did you see any dead bodies', or 'did you participate in any combat'). Additionally there are screening sessions 30, 60, and 90 days out that seek to determine if you are experiencing detrimental effects. They ask questions like 'how are you getting along with your family' and 'how much are you drinking' and 'do you ever think about harming yourself and others'.

The main impediment which keeps these programs from being really effective is the soldiers themselves. Part of the warrior ethos and culture of the Army is self-sufficient toughness. It's a vital and important characteristic of a good soldier. Unfortunately it also means that people who are experiencing difficulties rarely come straight out and tell someone; especially some unknown officer from Army Medical.

My Reality

The platoon I commanded had two teams who each conducted over 100 'red-zone' missions without ever being involved in a direct fire engagement. The vast majority of these missions involved moving in a 4-truck convoy to an unsecured Iraqi facility (Jails, Police Stations, Courts, Construction Projects, Fire Stations, etc.); securing the facility while our passenger from the State Department or Provincial Reconstruction Team conducted a meeting; and then returning back to the Green Zone when complete. Even though we didn't see any combat, I still consider each of these missions to be a combat mission. I personally led about half of the missions (my Platoon Sergeant led the other half). We did come under occasional mortar and rocket attack - but it was sporadic and rarely threatening. While we could often hear the explosions, only once could I feel the blast wave (I was about 500m away - well outside the danger area). So - given the above - what was it like for me to come home? What did I face as part of my reintegration process?

Short Term Effects - Initial Integration (2-4 weeks home)

I ran my last combat mission at the end of July, I was on a plane out of Baghdad on the 2nd of August, and I was sitting in my living room by the 11th. After having spent a year in a combat zone, it was a sudden shock to my system. My first few days back were marked by extreme discomfort. While overseas, you have to develop and foster the ability to constantly scan for threats. As it turns out, you can't simply turn off this hypervigilance just because you're safe now. I found that I couldn't walk into a room without immediately finding all the entrances and exits, identifying blind spots in the room, and choosing a defensive position in case I needed to hole up somewhere. I couldn't walk down a street without looking for the high-speed avenues of approach and analyzing the area for obstructions to fields of fire and hiding places. I got really uncomfortable when I saw people near me on rooftops.

I also did very poorly in crowded areas. For instance, one night my wife and I were at a club listening to music and watching people dance... but the part of my brain that kept track of the running threat assessment just couldn't turn off. I spent a couple of hours sitting with my back to a wall with a good line of sight of the doorway feeling overwhelmed by all the noise and all the people. I couldn't shake the feeling that the only way I'd feel comfortable and safe in this crowd was to be holding a rifle. Eventually, I told my wife that I needed to leave and so we cut short our evening and went home. I felt bad, but she was very understanding.

I also badly missed my platoon. Not in the sense of missing the camaraderie and friendship, but more in the sense of a missing limb. As the Platoon Leader, I'd come to feel like the platoon was an extension of me and I was an extension of it. Of course we all maintained our individual identities, but we also forged a shared identity that left me feeling somewhat bereft when it was suddenly sheared away.

At first, everyone I meet seemed to be fascinated by my story. I got lots and lots of questions - lots of "gee, I couldn't imagine doing something like that," and lots of praise. It was awkward for me because I'm a relatively modest person and I don't really like to be the center of attention anyway. I also felt like I just went over and did my job - hardly anything fascinating or heroic to deserve that sort of praise

Mid-Term Effects - Transition (4-16 weeks home)

The acute effects listed above began to soften almost immediately. Within a couple of weeks I'd passed into the Transition phase as I began to readjust to my new (old) life. My hypervigilance began to relax as my subconscious adapted to being in a safe environment. I started to be able to enter buildings without analyzing the defensive capabilities, I was able to move through crowds without feeling like I needed a rifle in my hands and soldiers at my back. Oddly enough, men on roofs made me uncomfortable for quite a bit longer than most of the other indicators.

I found that getting back into the routine of work was probably the biggest single event that helped me get used to being a civilian again. So much of my life was new and different than the life I'd left behind 18 months prior. I was newly married - we'd bought a house while I was in Baghdad, so the home I came back to was not the same home I'd left. I'd sold my car and most of my belongings were packed either in our spare bedroom or still in storage. (But they didn't feel like they were mine anyway - it'd been so long.) Through all these changes, coming back to work and sitting down at my old familiar desk seemed to trigger a switch that allowed me to finally start to combine the 'old' me and the 'new' me into one whole person again.

Through this phase, people began to lose interest in my story. My time in Iraq still felt immediate and recent to me, but for my friends and acquaintances it had already turned into history. I found that I would bring it up a fair amount. I was always correlating things back to my overseas experience, or mentioning some anecdote. Others, though, seemed to get less and less interested.

During this period, the units all began to start drilling again. The recovery period was over and we had to put the brigade back together and begin working on our training plans. I was transferred to another unit, which turned out to be extraordinarily emotional for me. I got the word right at the end of the December drill that I'd be leaving my platoon and moving to A Troop as of January. At our final formation, I was able to call together my soldiers for one last time and give them the news. It's hard to be responsible for a group of people for so long and then one day it just... ends. I said my goodbyes - gave the final salutes and hugs and got in to my car to drive off. I held it together just long enough to get onto the road and be alone... then I started bawling like a baby. To give over my beloved platoon to some complete stranger... I felt guilty, like I was abandoning them.

Staying in my platoon was the final thread of continuity with my deployed life, and once that was broken I quickly shifted into the final phase of my reintegration:

Long Term - Stabilization (16+ weeks)

Well before the end of winter I'd settled into my new life. It finally began to feel like my real life, not some part that I was playing. All the changes had begun to seem familiar and comfortable. I no longer worried about threat assessments, even men on rooftops didn't bother me anymore. While the deployment still stands as a major and transformative event in my life - it has now joined the ranks of my long term memories (like college, basic training, and OCS). It no longer feels recent and raw.

Almost nobody asks me about it anymore, and I try not to bring it up too much. I feel slightly embarrassed when I realize that I've done so - I don't want to be the guy who is always reliving his glory days of some past event. On the rare occasions where someone does want to know about it, the conversations are interesting, but usually short-lived. There are still occasional jarring events that seem to turn back the clock. For instance - war movies that take place in Iraq sometimes get me a little off-center for a couple of days.

I'll occasionally have dreams that where I'm back in Baghdad and people are shooting and things are exploding; although I've only had a couple of dreams that I found disturbing or disruptive. Once I dreamed that I was part of some sort of well equipped armed mercenary force that was invading a city and being rather horrible to the local inhabitants. I think it has do to with latent ethical questions about having invaded Iraq to begin with. Another time I dreamed that I was riding along in a HMMWV when I looked out the armored window to see a man throwing an RKG-3 (a type of armor piercing grenade commonly used in lethal attacks on US vehicles) at me. I could see through the window heading directly toward my head. I woke up with my heart pounding as I jerked my hands up to shield my face (a futile gesture against a real RKG-3).

Sometimes, I find that random things are more emotionally weighted than I'd expect. Most recently was the NPR news series on the humanitarian rescue efforts of the USS Kirk at the end of the Vietnam War (part 1, part 2, part 3). But for the most part, I feel like I've adapted well - integrated the 'army' version of me with the 'civilian' version of me into one healthy whole person.

It helps that I have a highly supportive wife, a supportive family, and a military-friendly and supportive workplace. Everybody has been understanding and helpful and I really couldn't be more thankful that I have those support structures in place. Which is, I think, the important point to take away from all this. For returning veterans there is only so much that the Army can do. It's up to the family, friends, employers, churches, and communities to help returning soldiers. the government and the military can't create a placebo policy that replaces the value that these social institutions provide.

So if you know someone having trouble, or are concerned about how to help people having trouble - don't wait for the government to fix it. You go fix it. Go be someone's friend, go help by showing the vets that they aren't alone, that they have understanding and supportive people in their community,

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Serenity & Chaos

The day started like the others, with a breakfast of cereal and coffee prepared at the house. As we prepared to head out for the day, Sally warned me that I ought to make sure to bring decent hiking shoes and be prepared to get wet. The weather was still quite warm, but the rain showers were getting more common and we’d be outside for much of the day without the benefit of shelter to duck into if a squall passed overhead.

Hiking up the mountain to the Doseon Temple

Our first destination was 도선사 (Doseon Temple). We left the house at around 0800 and boarded our usual bus – although this time we took the northbound route away from the city. After about a 20 minute bus ride, we got off at the end of the line. The route had taken us along the edge of a north-south running ridge called 북한산 (Boghan Mountain) and now our task was to hike east, up onto the ridge. It was fairly thickly wooded, with a few roads and trails running up into it, several Buddhist temples as well as grave monuments to famous freedom fighters spread out all over the ridge. We got off the bus in a little commercial section that seemed rather devoted to hiking and orienteering. There were several stores selling gear – some brands I recognized (like Columbia and North Face) while others were new to me. It was still somewhat early, so there weren’t too many people about, although we gradually began to pass more and more people bedecked in hiking gear, carrying various telescoping walking sticks and other such accoutrements. Apparently, the temple that was our final destination was right at the trailhead of a popular set of trails that ran throughout the ridgeline.

Buddhas, thousands of Buddhas!

We set out east, gradually gaining in elevation as we went. Soon the commercial urban setting began to give way to a more suburban look, as the number of trees and streams began to increase. We passed a few restaurants and tea houses, and pretty soon we were walking along a narrow road that twisted upward through the forest with no buildings in sight. There were however, fairly regular encounters with other pedestrians and bicyclists – most working their way upwards, but a few returning from the top as well. As we walked, the road continued to narrow, we continued to gain elevation, and the grade continued to increase. Somewhere along the way we crossed the line from a nice stroll to a genuine hike – although the entire was way along the side of a paved road. At a few points I was somewhat worried about getting run over by vehicles, as the narrow and twisty road had no dedicated pedestrian space and we just walked at the side of the road while cars occasionally came barreling down from above. However it seems that the divers and pedestrians had somehow worked out an uneasy truce – and there didn’t seem to be any trouble sharing the space with each other. The forest was thick and verdant, the terrain was rugged and mountainous, and the valleys were deep and narrow. Occasionally the road would bisect one of these valleys unexpectedly—the valley would be virtually hidden until suddenly it opened up next to you. The deep sides of the valley seemingly flying away from you up into the sky while off in the distance you could see a craggy peak shrouded in the mist high above.

Entrance to the temple complex

After about 45 minutes, we rounded a turn and were greeted with a large cement statue of Buddha sitting in the middle of a small parking lot and turn-around, staring peacefully down the mountainside toward the west. There were also a few small souvenir stands as well as a tea house and other structures. The trailhead was to the west and appeared to continue up the hill in that direction, while the temple road ran along a spur to the southeast. Both continued to gain in elevation.

Bell with a drum in the background

Sally and I stopped and caught our breath for a few moments before continuing in to the temple grounds. It was a large and sprawling complex with various statues and shrines built all over. Quite a few worshippers were there as well, walking around, stopping to bow and pray in front of the various representations of Buddha. And yet for all the activity, it was quite tranquil. People moved with an unhurried sense of purpose—I think the only people there who were wandering about randomly were Sally and myself. I felt somewhat awkward – of course I stood out enough already as the one tall white man there, but to be walking around this holy place with my big camera taking pictures seemed almost crass to me. I didn’t want to be rude, but people genuinely didn’t seem to mind. Even so, I tried to avoid taking pictures of people actively worshipping as it didn’t quite feel right to intrude upon their prayers.

The laughing fat Buddha

The access road ran underneath a beautiful decorated archway with representations of four protecting beings and extended for about a quarter mile inward. Along the way were several statues of Buddha and toward the end was a long and steep flight of stairs that ran directly up the hillside, with several landings along the way. At each landing was another statue – and at the top was a large semi-circle containing thousands of small statues lining the side—each one labeled with a name—all of them facing inward toward a pagoda-like structure. At the center of the semicircle was a small alter and a larger statue of Buddha amongst the tiny ones. A woman was walking repeatedly in circles around center structure – stopping at each of the four sides and bowing every time. I don’t know how long she’d been there before I showed up, but she continued doing this for about 10 minutes before leaving.

The 'protector' Buddha

Sally and I worked our way back down the stairs and turned left toward the buildings comprising the temple proper. These were also gorgeous – constructed using the traditional style, with the gracefully curving rooflines, brightly painted supporting woodwork, and individual roofing tiles emplaced along the top. It’s a little unsettling for the western viewer to see the swastika liberally used as a design motif. I’d known that the design had been used in India and had meaning within the Buddhist tradition – however the symbology to me has almost always been used to represent the German Nazi movement and it took a bit of effort to reprogram my head to see the Buddhist symbol meaning peace rather than the Nazi symbol. However, it was made somewhat easier by the fact that the Buddhist version seems to be always shown with the arms bending in a counter-clockwise direction – opposite the more familiar German version.

The main temple building

The temple had a variety of buildings, structures, and shrines – and they were all gorgeous and it seemed that they were all filled with people kneeling and praying. We explored the grounds for a while - enjoying the spectacular views and gorgeous buildings. In spite of the bustling activity people's movements were unhurried and deliberate, lending a rather dignified tranquility to the entire site.

Doseonsa is tucked into verdant mist covered mountains

After some time, all the walking coupled with the warm temperature began to take its toll on us and our energy began to flag. We walked back down toward the parking lot and trail head where we sat and enjoyed a refreshing break at the conveniently located tea house. It felt good to sit and take a load off of our feet and so we spent perhaps a little longer than we had intended sipping tea and talking.

Waiting for the tea to arrive

Soon enough, though, we picked up our bags and headed back down the mountain. As is usually the case, the trip down seemed to pass much faster than the trip upward. Before I knew it we had arrived at the base of the mountain and had boarded the bus back to the pharmacy. We took a bit of time at home to recover from the morning. Sally's parents closed up the pharmacy for lunch and we took off to a well-known restaurant called 동회루 [Donghwilu] that's famous for its Chinese-style noodles. After enjoying the tasty food (and of course a bottle of 소주 [soju]), Sally's parents went back to the pharmacy while we walked to the nearby 남산골한옥마을 [Namsangol Hanok Village]. It's a collection of traditional houses nestled into the heart of the busy city.

One of the Hanok at the Village.

It's a lovely little collection of houses from the late Joseon period. The houses are furnished with period decor, and there are even a few wax statues of people wearing representative clothing. We strolled around for a while peering into the houses and generally enjoying the atmosphere. After about an hour we decided to move on, so we left the village and went back to the nearby subway station to catch a ride to the next stop - Myeondong.

Shopping in Myeongdong.

In the movies, it seems that every major city in Asia looks like this. Teeming with people, lots of lighted signs covering all the available vertical space on the buildings, and street vendors crammed into every blank space selling pretty much anything you can imagine. This particular area seems to be rather trendy and upscale - lots of young people running around buying things. At one point a group of six or seven med dressed as cell phones came parading past. (Yeah - you read that right - dressed like cell phones.) Sally and I found an O'Sulloc tea house and enjoyed some tasty green tea goodness. I had some sort of tower of green tea sherbet while Sally enjoyed some Omija Tea (famous for having five distinct tastes at once: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent).

Sally enjoying Omija Tea at the O'Sulloc in Myeongdong.

After finishing up we stopped by the post office to mail some postcards before making our way out to the nearby bus stop. We caught the 151 and took it all the way back up to the pharmacy. We had a flight out to Jeju Island early the next morning, so once we got back we puttered around for a bit packing our bags and making sure we were ready to go. It wasn't too long, though, until the bags were packed. Between the hike to the temple in the morning and spending all afternoon on our feet walking around downtown, we were pretty tired - so we were both fast asleep not too long after.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Korean National Museum, Insadong Market Street

Reflecting pond and gazebo in front of the museum
The early morning darkness was filled with thick, heavy rain and near constant thunder and lightning. It was difficult to sleep through it, so between about 0300 and 0630 I lay in bed trying ineffectively to sleep. Eventually we got up and rolled away the bed, got dressed, and prepared coffee and breakfast. We headed out into the world shortly after 0800 – taking the bus down to the subway station and then riding the subway for quite some distance to the Korean National Museum.

The museum was very well put together, expansive and organized chronologically. (The only downside was that I wasn’t allowed to use a tripod to take any photos.) We focused primarily on the Korean cultural displays, bypassing the section on loan from the British Museum as well as the sections dealing with other Asian cultures. Even so – we ran out of time to really explore the sections we wanted in depth. Starting from the Neolithic all the way to Modern times, there were rooms dedicated to almost all aspects of archaeology, art, and culture. After 4 hours of exploring, though, the museum was becoming quite crowded and we were both getting quite hungry. We left the museum and stopped by a ‘Family Mart’ store and bought some coffee and kimbap as we walked back toward the subway.

Pieces on display at the National Museum

We had a lunch date with Sally’s parents again – this time meeting at a restaurant housed in a 200 year old traditional structure nestled between the modern concrete buildings. While they had floor seating, this time we sat at a table—I think for my benefit—and once again I was treated to a flurry of activity as all sorts of tasty food in a variety of small bowls appeared on the table: three types of kimchi, several sauces, sliced onions, carrots and cucumbers for dipping. The ladies ate some sort of soup with a small game hen boiled in it, while the men ate dog meat. I wasn’t sure what to expect – but it wasn’t bad. It was frankly rather bland and oily – but we dipped it in one of the sauces on the table which helped give it some flavor. It’s apparently supposed to be very good for the health and digestion – they said that I’d feel very strong and vigorous within a couple of days. We’ll see. :)

Guardian Spirits of Insadong
After lunch, Sally’s dad went back to the pharmacy while her mom took us to a fortune teller in the Insadong area. After getting the information about our birth date and times, he and sally spoke for a while in Korean (with Sally giving me updates in English). Apparently she’s good with money, sees the world in black and white, and can come across as aloof and somewhat proud. I am apparently predisposed to be a warrior rather than a scholar and I’m a devoted family man. Apparently we both have very strong chi, which means that if I don’t have some outlet like the Army for my strong chi, then our two strong chis will be in conflict with each other leading to a very unhappy end. Other than that, though, we are apparently a good match for each other. Afterward, the gentleman gave us a large calligraphy sheet with some of his work on it – it was done in Chinese rather than Korean, so neither of us can read it – but it is rather attractive.

 Starbucks in Hanguel - "Su-ta-beok-su Keo-pi"
We left the fortune teller and spent the next several hours exploring the Insadong area. It’s a bit of a tourist shopping street – in some respects similar to Pike Place Market, but more focused on the visitors and with fewer shops for locals. We went into several shops, sampled many tasty bits of street food and sweets, bought a few souvenirs for family back home, and spent a lovely hour in a (somewhat) typical tea house. It had a funky, cute atmosphere and was crowded with people just there to rest their legs for a bit and hang out with friends over a hot cup of tea. It seemed to serve a function similar to the way Seattleites treat coffeeshops.

The "Old Tea House" is a relaxing place to spend an hour
As the sun started to sink in the western sky, and our legs began to fail underneath us, we worked our way back up to the subway station, and headed toward home. We got off the subway at the “Lotte” shopping center where there was a large ‘food court’ style restaurant area and picked up some food to take home and eat for dinner. We arrived back at the pharmacy at about 1900, and snacked on watermelon, 떡볶이 (ddeokbokki), and another dish whose name escapes me.

After all was said and done, we were pretty beat so we crashed out and were fast asleep by about 2130 or so.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Seoul Palaces

Main gate into Changdeok Palace
I woke up very early at around 0400--still not adjusted to local time--and puttered around, made coffee, ate some cereal and fruit for breakfast. Then we caught the bus (route 151) just outside the house which took us directly to the 창덕궁 (Changdeok Palace). The weather was quite warm with intermittent drizzle – but nothing too extreme... yet.

Sally bought tickets for entry to the Korean language tour. Sally agreed to translate as needed for me and we wanted to be sure to get the accurate info (apparently sometimes the English language versions of these sorts of things aren’t very good). Besides – I wanted to wander around and take pictures and it was easy to split from the large group and do so whereas there were only a handful of people for the English tour. The palace compound was large and ornate. It was built into a hillside, so there were several vantage points where there seemed to be a cavalcade of graceful curved tile roofs spilling down the hill. The tour guide explained how various areas were limited to people of specific ranks, and certain doors and pathways were for the exclusive use of the King.

The Changdeok Throne Room
Frankly I spent much of my time at the tail end of the group, waiting for the people to move out of the field of view so I could take pictures without all the extras standing about. However, it was a pretty controlled area and we had a ‘tender’—a guy who followed behind the group and made sure stragglers didn’t peel off and do their own thing—so I wasn’t really able to just take off and go exploring.

Inside the palace walls is a separate area called “the secret garden” (which required a separate entrance fee). It was a 2 hour guided walking tour through the gardens associated with the palace. “Garden” is somewhat of a misnomer, as it really feels much more like a deeply wooded park with trails connecting various structures and gazebos. Again we had a tender so I couldn’t just take off and explore the park. It was a fairly large complex, with a variety of trails, streams, pools, houses and gates. All structures were—of course—done in a traditional style and were gorgeous to look at. The weather became much more extreme during this walk, heating up several degrees and pushing several rain squalls overhead. The thick warm rain has a much more tropical vibe to it than the cool and modest Seattle rain that I’m used to!

In the 'Secret Garden" at Changdeok Palace
It was getting to be the early afternoon by this point and I was starting to get very hungry. Sally called her folks and we made arrangements to meet them for lunch at a noodle restaurant of some renown. We entered the subway a few blocks from the palace. I was getting pretty hungry and needed something to tide me over. So even though we were on our way to eat lunch, we stopped in the subway at a “Paris Baguette” (a common bakery/café chain) and ordered a sausage roll and a couple of iced peach teas. Feeling somewhat refreshed, we moved on to the subway car and rode a couple of stops to the south before getting out. Our trip had been much faster than Sally’s parent’s trip, so we waited around in the subway station for a few minutes – I passed the time by laboriously sounding out the Korean writing on the various advertisements.

Her folks showed up after a few minutes and we walked to the nearby noodle restaurant. Like most Korean meals, it started with a large number of small dishes being placed on the table – kimchi, pork slices, picked radish, sliced garlic, various sauces. Shortly afterward, the main dish came out – a large metal bowl with a cold noodle soup in it. It was just the right meal for the hot day, and we all dug it with gusto! Sally’s dad ordered a rice wine which in the west would straddle the line between wine and liquor – it was 25% alcohol – more than I’m used to drinking with lunch. Her dad and I took turns pouring it into shot glasses and then drinking up! I had three shot glasses and he had four before the small bottle was empty. I was glad he didn’t order another one because I certainly didn’t want to over-imbibe alcohol on such a hot day!

Ceremonial Guard at
Doeksu Palace
Afterward, Sally’s parents got back on the subway and headed back to the Pharmacy while Sally and I walked through the underground subway station westward toward the next palace – 덕수 (Deoksu). While this also required a fee for entrance – there were no guided tours. This palace was a little smaller and nestled into the heart of what seemed like a glittering business district with construction cranes and hi-rise office buildings nearby. The style of the buildings was very similar to the previous palace and we explored the grounds taking pictures and looking at the displays. At 1530, the ceremonial ‘changing of the palace guard’ took place out ant the main gate. I suppose it’s technically an army garrison – the ‘actors’ were part of the ROK Army, however they were dressed and armed in the traditional fashion. The US ‘Old Guard’ in Washington DC is somewhat similar in this respect. At any rate, there were guards on station at the main gate and then a parade of additional soldiers came out from around the corner – marching in step with flags and banners, accompanied by traditional Korean military instrumentation. Then they performed a large ceremony demonstrating the exchange of duties between the shifts, and the old shift marched away while the new shift assumed the guard. It was all very interesting to watch. I noticed, however, that the traditional ceremony was being run by a man (officer?) with a radio and an earpeace. It was an interesting juxtaposition, the man in traditional black silk robes with the small corkscrew cord indicative of so many secret service agents running up to his ear from beneath his collar.

Video of the changing of the guard at Deoksu Palace
I was pretty tired, and so we hopped back on the subway and took off towards home. I settled down on a couch in the pharmacy and started looking at some of my photos. Sally’s mom accompanied the two of us to dinner at around 1845. It was a lovely little evening stroll to a little place about 15-20 minutes away. The three of us sat on little bamboo mats on the floor around the low table while a variety of tasty food seemed to keep appearing in a constant stream in front of us. It was all very good, but I was also very tired. We walked back as the sun set on the city. When we arrived at home, Sally and I prepared for the following day and fell asleep fairly early at about 2100.