Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Buddha(Lotus Lantern Festival)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

North Korean Submarine

After the festival, I walked around Gangneung for what seemed to be a neverending quest for a beer and something to eat. I eventually ended up in a bar called Bacchus, where I met the owner, Chung Song, who kindly sat down for a few drinks with me. It was an enjoyable evening, as it always is when meeting new friends, and Song very generously offered to take me around the Gangnueng area the next day for a bit of sightseeing.

The following day we met up and went out for some noodles. We firstly made a short stop at Gyeongpo beach and then it was off to the town of Jeondongjin, which is twenty kilometres south of Gangneung and is famous for having a captured North Korean submarine on display, as well a train station on the beach.

Heading towards the town along the coast there is a huge cruise ship on top of a hill; a striking image, if a little surreal, which Chung Song explained to me was a luxury hotel complex.

Driving along the coast I couldn't help but notice the fences lined with barbed wire alongside the road where it meets the beach, a preventitive measure obviously to reduce the threat of North Korean's trying to enter the country. It gave a somewhat oppressive feel to the otherwise beautiful scenery, but I suppose these are the modern realities of the situation between the two countries which are still officially at war.

I then asked Song what he thought about North Korea.

'North Korea is very bad.'

He then went on to tell me about how he had to do national service for a total of two years at the age of nineteen, something that all men in Korea have to do. I got the distinct impression it was something he would have preferred not to have done, what with it taking up such a large part of his life.

Once in Jeondongjin, we went to the Unification Park Museum, which contains a variety of things obtained from the submarine such as firearms, ammunition, diving suits, uniforms and telescopes used by the North Korean military at the time of the infiltration. It was quite remarkable seeing all these things, but what surprised me most was a Pepsi can that had been found on board, as well as a Japanese camera. So much for the North Korean government's viewpoint on the evils of consumerism.

Then we went down towards the seafront to visit the North Korean submarine. Weighing 325 tonnes it is 35 metres long and had a top speed of 13 kilometeres an hour. Once inside I was surprised by its size and how cramped it must have been for everyone on board.

The submarine became grounded on rocks on 17 September 1996. The commander of the vessel burnt all the important documents relating to the mission, the effects of which can still be seen inside the burnt-out cabin. 11 of the crew members were then shot, either in a suicide pact or by the soldiers on board.

The manhunt for the remaining 15 soldiers and agents once they had arrived on land lasted for 49 days as they attempted to return to North Korea. By the end 13 were were killed, 1 was captured and 1 had escaped. 17 South Koreans including 4 civillians were also killed and there were 22 others injured.

I had a wonderful weekend and it turned into far more than I ever could have expected. The Dano Festival was a terrific experience and I also got to learn a little more about the history and relationship between North and South Korea, something I'll hopefully be delving into a little bit further as my stay here continues.

For all the photos click here.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dano Festival

Gangneung is a town situated on the north eastern coast of Korea and is famous for the Dano Festival, a shaman festival which dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty(918-1392).

The festival is the biggest held in the area throughout the entire year and begins on the fifth day, of the fourth month of the lunar calender.

On the first day of the festival it is believed that spirits come down from the mountains, to the Dano Festival area by the Namdaecheon River. People walk through the town alongside the spirits, carrying lanterns to lead them to the ritual site. Once they arrive, the lanterns are set adrift along the Namdaecheon River, as prayers are offered. The spirits stay at the altar here for five days and on the final day, they make their journey back towards the mountain.

The first ritual of the day is called Jojeonjo, which is held on the Dano altar every morning at 9 o'clock and is dedicated to praying for a bountiful harvest and tranquility.

Following this is the Dano Gut, a ritual which is carried out by several female shamans and musicians. During the Dano Gut the head shaman performs a song in time with the accompanying beat of the drum, whilst other musicians strike cymbals to help create an entrancing sound, quite unlike any other I've ever heard before.

Whilst all of this is happening, people pray at the Dano altar and light pieces of paper ,that burn away as they rise up into the air above.

Throughout the day rituals are performed not only for a plentiful harvest, but to exorcise spirits as well, in the hope of warding off misfortune and disease.

Shaman Ceremony

The festival is also home to one of Korea's largest markets and the Korean word 'nanjang' is used to describe it, which literally means 'place of chaos' or 'place of confusion'.

Anything and everything was on sale here, from kitchen utensils and DVDs to handicrafts and traditional foods like silkworm larvae(bundaegi), which I'll hopefully get to try at some point during my stay here.

Probably the most interesting thing in the market was a man on a stall selling bottles with ginsing and huge centipedes in them for medicinal purposes, which I have to say looked quite the opposite of tempting.

Throughout the whole day there were a number of performances of traditional farming music, which I enjoyed greatly and the movement of the dancers and the vivid costumes, coupled with the music, provided some enthralling entertainment for the watching crowd.

The final event of the day was the Hapyeong Dapgynori, which is a game played between two teams, in the hope that they have a good harvest and large catches of fish.

Once it became dark each team of people dressed in their traditional shamanist attire, lit their torches and then started to walk around in a circle chanting. Then both teams walked onto a wooden bridge to confront each other and pretended to fight in a mock torch battle. It was all very exciting with everyone waving their flaming torches at each other and shouting loudly.

After this they came down and the atmosphere was unbelievable as everybody was walking round and chanting at the top of their voices. People watching were even allowed to join in and it was definitely the highlight of the whole day for me.

For all the photos click here.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


Travelling around Asia I've had plenty of opportunities to try different sports that I otherwise probably wouldn't have tried back home.

In Thailand I got to go kayaking through caves and mangrove swamps, as well as rock climbing and snorkelling when I visited some of the countries beautiful islands. Amazing experiences that I'll never forget and hopefully one day, when I return, I'll get to explore the ocean depths by trying diving as well.

In Japan I got to go snowboarding for the first time, something I enjoyed greatly, although I have to admit I was rather unsuccesful in my efforts.

Hopefully when winter arrives here in Korea I'll get the chance to go away to the mountains and improve, or at least manage to travel more than ten yards without falling over the next time.

As they say, you should try everything once, so last weekend I went wakeboarding with my friends Brent and Sung-yi.

Wakeboarding is similar to water-skiing, but instead of two skis attached to your feet you have a board, so in many respects it's like snowboarding on water.

With a few tips from Sung-yi and Brent and a bit of practice with a board and a rope attached to a post I was ready to go. After putting my feet into the rubber bindings on the board, a major struggle in itself, I jumped into the water, which I have to admit was quite a bit colder than I was expecting. I'd like to say that I didn't embarass myself by letting out a shrill scream, but this would unfortunately be a complete lie.

Bobbing up and down I waited for the speedboat to come around with the line. It was at this point I realised I had an audience watching from the wakeboarding centre on the shoreline.

The pressure was now on. As the driver revved up the engine a number of thoughts went through my mind. Would I be able to do it? Would I face utter humiliation? Why did I get out of bed this morning?

The boat set off taking up the slack on the line. Holding on for dear life I remembered everything that I'd just practiced on land and I tried standing up, whereupon I immediately lost my balance and fell face first into the water.

After re-surfacing to howls of laughter, I then realised that everyone on the shoreline wasn't actually watching to offer me moral support but was there to witness the entertainment of seeing me fall in.

Unperturbed, I waited for the boat to come around again with the line. Clutching onto the handle the boat sped off once again. I managed to stay up a bit longer this time but unfortunately fell straight back in.

After a few more tries I managed to maintain some sort of balance and I was off. The sense of accomplishment was terrific and it was great to have the feeling of gliding across the water, rather than being dragged through it.

Having finally mastered standing up on the board without falling over I was faced with my first wake. Now the aim of wakeboarding is to jump the wake or wave that is created from the boat as it passes through the water. The board allows lift off the wake, allowing all multitude of tricks for the seasoned professional.

Unfortunately I'm no seasoned professional and once again I fell headfirst into the water, which managed to completely wipe the smile off my face from finally managing to stay up. Fortunately, when faced with further wakes I managed to jump them and by the end of the day, although not the fully accomplished wakeboarder, I was falling in far less than previously.

I had a great day out, despite the pain that I still feel days later and I'll definitely be trying it again sometime.

For all the photos click here.