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Job 3: SMOE

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 8, 2015

September 2008 – August 2009

A dancing lesson given during the SMOE orientation

A Government Job

I really enjoyed living in Korea. I wanted to go back there, but I had to find a new company to work for. I did not trust English Channel anymore. I considered myself lucky for getting out when I did and with all the money owed to me.

My brother and me in Mongolia


I was on a long trip and did not have much time to job search until I got stuck in Mongolia. The day my brother, mother, and I were to fly out of Ulanbataar, there was a sand storm. Our flight kept getting delayed.

There was also a problem with my Russian visa. The expiration date for my visa to Russia was soon approaching, and I was still in Mongolia. I took to the internet at a cafe to see what I could do about it. There was nothing to be done.

The problem sorted itself out in the end. But, it gave me time on the internet to do some job hunting. I kept an e-version of all the documents I needed, so when I found a job ad for SMOE, I applied right away. I hoped that I would get the job, but at the time I had other things to worry about.

SMOE, or the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, puts native English speakers in English classes in the public schools in Seoul. SMOE is not a company, but an office in the Korean government.

I felt that working for the government would be better than working for a company. I would not have to worry about not being paid on time or the company going bankrupt. I could just concentrate on doing a good job.

Sight seeing in Finland


We spent a few days in Russia then moved on to Finland. When we were checking in to our hostel there my mom’s cell phone rang. Since she had an international sim card in her phone, I gave SMOE her phone number to contact me.

I was told that my resume sparked their interest. They asked me a few questions which I seemed to answer to their satisfaction. They said that someone would call me later for an interview. I was to stay near the phone until then.

Train stations: the next best things to airports


A few countries after that, we were at a train station in Paris waiting for the Euro-star to London. We had a 30-minute wait ahead of us when a lady from SMOE called. The timing could not have been more perfect.

I ran to a quiet area and the interview started. It felt like a very informal chat. I think the interviewer was just checking to make sure I was not a creep or crazy person. At the end of the phone called, the lady told me that, although she could not tell me officially yet, I pretty much had the job.

I think that getting a job with SMOE back then was easier than it is today. There were several people I met at SMOE that I was surprised could get any job, much less one working with children. One guy missed a whole morning of meetings at orientation because he drank too much the night before and was passed out in a stairwell. For the week of orientation everyone was supposed to abstain from alcohol.

a field trip during SMOE orientation


It took several months for me to get back to Korea. In the United States, it took 2 months for me to get my paperwork done. The Korean government had just changed the laws concerned with foreign workers and even the people at the Korean embassy weren’t too sure what to do.

I had to get 2 types of background checks. I had to visit doctors to get x-rays and blood tests. After which, I had to get an apostille from the Korean consulate in Georgia. I had no idea what an apostille was, and I’m still not completely sure.

One of the many benefits of working for the government is that they paid to fly me to Korea. Both GEOS and English Channel made me pay for my flight then reimbursed the cost after I had worked for 6 months or so. SMOE, and later the JET Programme, paid for my ticket up front.

Of course both SMOE and the JET Programme waited until the day before I flew to email me the ticket. (I had the flight itinerary a few weeks in advance, just not an actual ticket.)

Orientation Lectures


When I got back to Seoul, I spent my first 3 weeks living with a co-worker. My apartment was not yet ready, so one of the English teachers volunteered to have me stay at her place. I hung out with her and her family. I felt completely welcomed and had a great time.

I taught classes my first week at work. The second week I had orientation. At first I was expecting it to be like the useless meetings GEOS made me go to, but it was much, much better than that.

Late night snacks

First, they sent us off to stay are the Hyundai Learning Center which is a really nice place. It looked pretty new when I was there; new dorm rooms, new gym, new laundromats. The center also had free wi-fi, a gym, and basketball and tennis courts outside, and plenty of congregating areas as well as a convenience store in the basement.

There were only a few rules: 1. Don’t leave the campus and 2. no alcohol. Many people had a problem with the rules. They felt as though they were being treated like babies. But for only one week, for your job? Come on!

Some of the presentations and lectures were boring. If you had ever taught English before there was very little new information here; a good refresher course though. But for me, the orientation was not really about learning a bunch of methods for teaching; I already knew that. It was about meeting new people who would help me survive the year in Korea.

I did take notes when I heard something interesting or new. But, mostly I collected friends. I Facebook friended people I liked, lived near me, or shared several interests with me. There were almost 200 new teachers at the orientation, so there were plenty of people to choose from.

(There were 200 people at my orientation, which was orientation B of the second hiring period of the year. SMOE hired a lot of native English speakers.)

Did I mention that SMOE orientation came with Korean food at every meal?

Many people did not like the food they served at orientation. They were new to the country and were not yet used to Korean food. I liked most of what was served to me about 80% of the time. Other than fish soup and spam, I’ll eat pretty much any type of Korean food.

No body wanted to eat Mr. Spamears.

The night they first served octopus was quite entertaining. Many westerners don’t eat octopus; squid sure, but not octopus. There is just something disturbing about purple meat. It took me a while before I could eat it without having to talk myself into it first.

Spam night was not a big hit either.

Doing my weekly radio show at my high school

I enjoyed working at a high school in Seoul. I felt more immersed in Korean culture since I had more Korean coworkers. I mostly taught kids, but I had 2 classes where I taught the English teachers and 2 were I taught the non-English teachers. I trusted many of my co-workers and went to them when I needed advice or help. And they did the same with me.

My students presenting their skit

I loved teaching these girls. (I taught at an all girl high school.) They were funny, witty, and creative. You know how most high school girls are. There were a couple of bad eggs, but most of them were mostly charming, most of the time.

Making new friends at SMOE Orientation

But I think the biggest difference with working with SMOE over a company, is that SMOE is a lot bigger than any of the companies in Seoul. They hired more foreign teachers than the hagwons. The many people I met at orientation, made a huge difference for me throughout the year.

I thought that I was okay with having just a few friends, namely my 6 or so co-workers and the 3 friends I made at the English Channel training. But I made more friends after one week at SMOE’s orientation then I did during the past year.

Not only that, but I made friends with their friends and their friends’ friends. With SMOE my social net kept getting broader and broader. I had my core close friends, but many other people I would meet up with once in a while.

I like to make my friends hike!

With a bigger net work of both foreign and Korean friends, I was a lot happier and more active than I was my first year in Korea.

South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.

Posted in Seoul, South Korea | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Job 2: English Channel

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 1, 2015

April 2007 – April 2008

One of my co-workers at EC and me

Why not Korea?

The next overseas Job I got was at English Channel in South Korea. This is another company that has since gone out of business.

I enjoyed teaching English in Japan and wanted to try it in a new country. After a year in the ESL teaching industry, I knew what I liked and didn’t like. I liked teaching adults. I hated teaching little kids.

There is a huge difference in the behavior of children who have started school and those who have not. School aged kids have a higher maturity level and, since they’ve been to school, they have already learned how to control themselves in a classroom setting.

Some people love teaching babies and toddlers because they are so cute. But, if I have to wear a suit to work, I would prefer not to be thrown up or peed on. Besides, I hate singing and dancing. (I’ll do it if I have to, but I will never like it.)

I really got into hiking my first year in Korea.

So when I found the website for English Channel that said they only teach adults, I knew that I would like working for them. I just made sure that the pay, health insurance, and other benefits of the job met my criteria.

Jobs in Korea have different benefits than jobs in Japan. They both provide you with national health care and basic training. They both find you an apartment. But in Japan, you have to pay the rent. In Korea your boss pays the rent.

In both Japan and Korea you have to pay into the national pension. In Korea you get all of your pension back when you leave the country, if you are from the right country. In Japan, you only get the first 3 year’s work worth of pension that you put in.

Me on some mountain

So after taking a few months off to travel and visit friends and family back home, I emailed English Channel and scheduled an interview over the phone. I asked for the interviewer to call me after 18:00 my time on a Wednesday.

I woke up at 5:00 on a Tuesday when my cell phone rang. It was Mr. Webster at English Channel. I sat up in bed trying to sound awake. He asked if he had called me at the correct time. “No,” I said. Then I pretended that being called at 5 in the morning was no problem. “I was already up… um, organizing stuff.”

He started the interview. He asked questions and I answered them, quite well I must add. I was fast asleep 15 minutes before and sitting in bed in my pajamas, but I was killing this interview. At the end of the phone call I was told that I would be hired.

I just had to do some paperwork, which I did. Then I sent my passport to the Korean consulate in Georgia to get a visa. Within 2 weeks I was in Seoul.

I wore this everyday.

They did training and orientation for 3 days near one of their branches in Gangnam. There were 6 of us and we would all be sent to different schools around Seoul. I kept in regular contact with 3 of them until they left Korea. (I traveled with one of them to Thailand.)

There were many things about English Channel that I loved. The first being the coat. Most people hated wearing the lab coat but I loved it.

English Channel never called itself a school; it was a “language clinic”. It was very gimmicky, but I guess we were supposed to be doctors, nurses, or scientists… I don’t know.

But wearing the coat meant I never had to iron my shirt. Hell, I could wear the same shirt all week and no one would know. In the winter I wore long woolen shirts under my lab coat and in the summer I wore a tank top. That’s right; I wore a spaghetti strap tank top to work on hot days. No one would know; you only saw a small triangle of my shirt anyway.

I just made sure that my pants were ironed or that my skirt was long enough. Then, I wore the same un-ironed shirts every week.

Another mountain

Life was great at English Channel. I liked my co-workers and would hang out or take trips with them often. The managers we had were all at least tolerable; even the one who didn’t seem to like foreigners much. And, the job was easy.

There were no lessons to plan. The books they used came in lesson-form already. There was no paperwork for me to do. I would even get a bonus during the months I taught more than some set amount of classes.

There were also no meetings to attend. The only mandatory gatherings we had were branch sponsored dinners we had to go to every 3 months and the big Christmas company-wide dinner. We had to dress up for the Christmas dinner at a swanky restaurant in a posh hotel and sit through many boring speeches, but then we all got to eat as much free 5 star food we wanted. It was by far, the best free meal I ever had!

The only downside to the job was working on 2 Saturdays a month. But I could live with that.

another random mountain

Things were going so well, I started thinking about signing up for another year at English Channel. I had an around-the-world trip planned, but I was hoping to return to Korea and English Channel when that was done. But, during my last few months we got a new manager. He thought we could make more money by changing a few things.

The company stood out from the rest of the English schools in Korea because it was the only one that offered one-on-one classes. Students could have lessons go as quickly or slowly as they needed. They could also feel safe to make mistakes, because it was just them and the teacher in the class.

The new manager thought, that we could double our profits if we put 2 or 3 students in a class instead of just one. We tried it, and within a month many students left. I could see the results quickly. Chatty students clammed up when they were no longer the only student.

It was a disaster.

Like students leaving English Channel

At the end of April 2008, my contract was up and I left for my trip. Within the first month of leaving English Channel, I was supposed to get my end of the contract bonus. But when I checked my bank account, there was no deposit from English Channel.

I sent an email to the new personnel guy at the head office. I told him that I had yet to receive the year-end bonus. I got an email back from him a few days later where he basically told me that life was tough and that I should not be such a whiner.

I had never really dealt with this new guy before, but I had heard my co-workers complain about what a jerk he was. Rather than get into it with him again, I emailed the personnel guy that Mr. Jerk had replaced. Mr. Webster was the man who interviewed me and he was the guy I turned to.

I sent him a copy of the email Mr. Jerk sent me and asked him what he thought I should do about it. He told me not to worry and that he would take care of it. Within a week I had my money.

Somewhere in Korea

Later I heard from the co-workers I left behind that Mr. Webster got frustrated with the horrible changes the company was making and he quit his job. After that English channel stopped paying its employees on time. Then they stopped paying the Korean staff all together.

One of the native English teachers found out that English Channel stopped paying into the employee’s pensions and health insurance. Everyone I knew at English Channel left. The last I heard they shut down many of their branches. I think there are none left.

South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.

Posted in Seoul, South Korea | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Christmas In Seoul

Posted by Heliocentrism on May 29, 2014

December 23, 2012 – January 1, 2013

All Pictures

That suitcase is actually empty and wants to be packed with Korean goodies to take back to Japan.

23rd Sunday: 가자!

Mark and I had an argument around October of 2012. He wanted to go to Seoul to visit his new cousins. I said that it was too expensive.

Mark: How will it be expensive?

Me: Didn’t you say the Beetle is not that cheap around peak seasons? And, it only takes us to Busan. We still have to take a train to Seoul. Then we’ll have to pay for a hotel!

Mark: We don’t have to pay for a hotel. My cousin wants us to stay at her house. And, I found cheap airline tickets on JejuAir that cost less for two round trip tickets than one one-way fare on the Beetle.

Me: Well then, sounds like we’re going to Korea!

So on Sunday, December 23rd we set off to Fukuoka to get our JejuAir flight to Seoul.

When we got to the airport Mark’s cousin and her husband were there waiting for us. The cousin gave us both big hugs. I could tell she was very happy to see us. They stood there asking us questions.

Cousin: Flight good?

Mark: Yes.

Me: Flight good!

Cousin: Good!

The cousin looked at me and asked, “You speak Korean?”

Me: 조금한국어 (a little Korean)

The cousin looked at Mark. “And Mark?”

Mark: 가자! (Let’s go!)

They found this extremely amusing. “가자,” the husband said mockingly while laughing as he led us to their car. During the trip they would continually set the conversation up so that Mark could say, “가자!” They enjoyed hearing Mark “speak Korean”.

“가자 breakfast, 가자”

24th Monday: You’re not going out in that, are you?

We got up early in the morning and watched Sponge Bob Squarepants in Korean with the kids. Mark and I wondered what the plans were for the day. For most of the trip, we didn’t know what the plans were. Mark and I had made a few Facebook events to meet up with some friends of ours from Japan that were also in Korea for Christmas. But, other than that, we had no idea what we would be doing over this trip. This day, we found out as we were putting our shoes on to leave, we were going to the movies.

As we were getting dress, Mark’s cousin took a good look at my coat. Now, I have lived in Seoul for two years. I’ve been through two Seoul winters. But, my last three winters were in Thailand and Kyushu. Kyushu’s winters are quite mild if you stay off the mountains and Thailand… Well, you know. We were dress appropriately for winter in Oita, not Seoul.

“Josie No! Too cold. Sick, you sick. No!” We stood there and Mark’s cousin and her husband put more clothes on us. We got scarves, gloves, hats, sweaters, and more coats. Mark’s cousin pulled up one of my pant legs to reveal a footie sock. “No!” She handed me her cell phone. “Snow storm,” it said.

I looked out the window. It looked fine. There was no snow storm. I told Mark, “I bet it won’t even snow the whole time we’re here.” But we took the clothes. I felt like an abominable snow man with all those layers of fabric. I could hardly bend my arms.

It’s feast night every night!

Before we got to Korea I spoke with Mark’s cousin a lot over Facebook. She asked me what Korean dishes I liked most. I didn’t think much of this. “What food do you like” is a common question one gets asked in Asia. I have never met a Japanese or Korean who didn’t ask me this question during our first conversation. I think this is one of the first English questions everyone learns.

I told her about some dishes that I liked. I mentioned that my very favorite food, not just in the Korean category but food in general, is gamjatang. Had I known she was not asking for the sake of asking, I would have kept this dish off the list. Gamjatang takes all day to prepare. Like how roasted turkey is only made for Thanksgiving, gamjatang isn’t just a Wednesday night meal.

But while we were in Korea, every night was a feast.

I can’t emphasize this enough. We would sit and eat while Mark’s cousin continued to cook. If the plate of fritters became empty it would be replace with another plate of fritters. I had to pay close attention to my rice bowl. Any time it came close to being half empty it would get filled when my back was turned. After eating so much that sitting upright became a chore Mark’s cousin and her husband would ask, “Soup?” Then they would proceed ladling soup into a bowl for me.

One day after 4 hours of non-stop eating Mark and I sat leaning against the wall for support. One of the kids asked the husband a question. He shot right up as if inspired. “Ice Cream!” “Ice cream?” he asked us. “What!? No one told me there might be ice cream later. I would have eaten less to make room,” I said. “No you wouldn’t have,” Mark scoffed, ” You don’t get to choose when you stop eating around here.”

It would have been easier to say no if the food wasn’t so damn delicious.

Snow Storm?

25th Tuesday: Mr. Toilet’s Christmas

On Christmas day the plan was to meet up with friends from Japan and see Mr. Toilet. I’m not sure how I managed to talk everyone into this. Oddly enough, no one seemed the least bit hesitant to spend Christmas day at a place called Mr. Toilet’s house.

Mark, his cousin and I got to the meeting place early. It was around lunch and there were several eateries to choose from. The cousin asked us where we wanted to eat. There was no doubt. We chose Kimbab Chunggook (Kimbab Heaven).

Cheese Ramen

I ordered two of my favorite dishes, cheese ramen and chamchi kimbap. When Mark’s cousin saw my food she giggled. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “You like child food.” Apparently cheese ramen is the Korean equivalent to mac and cheese.

With perfect timing our friends showed up just when we finished eating. We all hopped on a bus and headed off to see Mr. Toilet’s house.

Treats from a snowman

Ensuring that you will never want to eat ice cream again…

Mr. Toilet, Sim, Jae-Duck, was actually born in a toilet. He grew up with the nickname “doggy poop”. But rather than fight this name, he embraced it. He grew up and became the mayor of Suwon, a town that didn’t have the best toilets in Sim’s opinion.

Not satisfied with the sanitary conditions of his city he started the World Toilet Association. He wanted the bathrooms of his city to be a “clean and beautiful resting places imbued with culture”. Later he would knock down his house and rebuild it in the shape of a giant toilet.

Mr. Toilet’s very own toilet

The centerpiece of the house was in fact a really nice bathroom with a cardboard cutout of Mr. Sim. One of the walls is made of glass giving the user a great view of the living room and the neighbors and giving the neighbors and everyone in the house a great view of the user. Of course you can flick a switch and fog the glass, but who wants to do that?

outdoor potties

Outside we walked the grounds looking a potty art and taking photos. There was a section for the history of Korean potties. As we came upon the items in the photo above, Mark’s cousin said, “Mark village.”

Mark – What?

Cousin – Child Mark use.

She stood there nodding her head. “Mark hometown use. Everyone use.” That’s when it hit us. Mark and I knew he was very poor when he lived in Korea, but we were not expecting this. According to the cousin, everyone in the tiny village both she and Mark lived in, used pots like the one in the photo for doing their business. Then someone would come by and empty the pots into barrels and take the contents away.

Mark and his little cousin

When the cousin was in the US, Mark’s family took her to see the sights in Michigan. When Mark and I went to Seoul, she wanted to do the same for us. During dinner on our first night she and her husband told us about the places in Seoul. “Seoul Tower; you know?” one of them would ask. “Yes. I lived near there my first year in Korea.” They kept naming other places, palaces, museums, Lotte World. Then we’d show them pictures of us at those places. We’ve been everywhere in Seoul already.

After Mr. Toilets House the husband had an idea. “We can show them the fort in Suwon.” They would surprise us and not tell us where we were going. We hopped on a bus and the cousin got very excited. “Korean special history place.” As the bus went further into Suwon, Mark and I tried to guess where we were going. “The only thing I can think of in Suwon is the Hwaseong fortress.” The cousin turned around to look at me. “Oh, you know!?”

We got off the bus and walked along the wall. Mark and I contemplated going in anyway. But right then I started to feel cold and tired… and worse. My throat felt scratchy. The cousin was right, I was getting sick.

Seoul subway

26th Wednesday: Sick Day

The next day I woke up feeling a bit feverish. Both the cousin and the husband had to work. We were going to use this day to visit our old hang-outs in Seoul. We even made it all the way to my old neighborhood of Chang-dong.

When I lived in Chang-dong they were building a new mall at Chang-dong station. This mall would have been right next to the apartment building I lived in. During my year in Chang-dong I saw this mall go from the ground and slowly make its way to just  below my 9th floor apartment. I thought they would be done by the time I came back.

We got off at Chang-dong station expecting to see a great mall. But there was nothing. It looked like construction had stopped shortly after I left. I’m not sure what happened.

We walked around Chang-dong. We were going to head to Myeong-dong next, but my temperature was going up. Mark thought it would be best if I got out of the cold and rested. So we went back to the cousin’s home.

I slept the rest of the day. I missed lunch, dinner, and all snacks in between. Every once in a while someone would come into my room and touch my head. Their hands were icy cold.

Mark: “Josie… Josie…”

Me: “What?”

Mark: “My cousin thinks you should go to the hospital. You’re fever is very high.”

I felt my own head. That’s when I notice that I had something stuck to my forehead.

Me: “I barely have a fever.”

Mark: “Your head is very hot. You have a 40 degree fever. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit but if it gets up to 41 my cousin is going to take you to the hospital whether you like it or not. In fact, she thinks you might have to stay in the hospital overnight and you will have to stay home tomorrow.”

Me: “But, tomorrow is jjimdak day!”

…must, look, not, sick

I was not about to not go out the next day for jim dak. I had to seem to be better. So, I got up and walked around a bit. I even ate some type of porridge. I drank tea and juice and a packet of drugs the cousin gave me. (It’s okay; she’s a nurse.) I smiled my best I’m-feeling-so-much-better smile. I even began to actually feel better. Then I went back to bed as everyone else began dinner #3.

Jjimdak for all!!

27th Thursday – Jjimdak Day

It’s hard to spend about a week in Korea without giving a good try at gaining 10 pounds. The food is just so good and many of the restaurants are quite affordable. On Thursday I felt well enough to go out, so Mark and I took his cousin and our friends to my favorite jjimdak restaurant in Seoul.

I warned my friends ahead of time. This restaurant specialises in jjimdak; all they sell is jjimdak. There are a few different flavors of jjimdak, but I like the traditional jjimdak best. I take mine with a medium level of hotness. Mark likes to challenge the cook to make it as hot as she can.

There was so many of us that we kind of took over the restaurant. I think we ordered every kind of jjimdak they had in both spicy and mild. Spicy wasn’t too bad if you stayed clear of the red peppers.

This is a very popular restaurant and in the past there were many times when I went there for lunch or dinner only to be turned away because the restaurant was full and people were waiting to get in. So I set our arrival this day for 3:00pm to avoid any chance of it being overcrowded.

Lookin’ Sooooo Gooood!

Jjimdak is a dish that is both delicious and hard to eat. It has a wonderfully spicy sauce with glass noodles and, this being Korea, is eaten with metal chopsticks. The sauce-glass noodle-metal chopsticks combination makes it very hard to get the food into your mouth. Then the sauce and glass noodles become a choking hazard because the stuff tries to slide down your throat before you can chew it. But, it’s totally worth it once you get the hang of it!

“Eye of the Tiger”

Of course you cannot have dinner with this many friends without heading to noribang (karaoke) afterwards. Korean noribang, where you pay per hour, is so much cheaper than Japanese karaoke, where you pay per person per hour. Plus, if you go to a posh noribang in Korea, it comes with a free drink or ice cream and costumes and/or toys. (Some come with noribang “helpers” but I’m not going to explain that. Let’s keep things PG.)

This is the closest thing to being in North Korea that Mark will agree to.

28th Friday – At the Movies…tudio

I am going to North Korea. Well I have already been there, but at the time of this trip I was going to North Korea. I tried to talk Mark into coming with me, but he adamantly refused. He did however, agree to go with me to a movie set of a film of the DMZ. We all have to compromise once we are married, I guess.

Mark and his cousins

Korea loves to make historical dramas. Many of them are filmed on this lot. Walking around the KOFIC Namyangju Studios is like walking back in time (minus the electrical outlets everywhere). We had fun posing in buildings and with props.

We came upon a house with thatched roof; the one in the photo above. It looked like a shabby house from a few centuries ago. The cousin looked at it and said, “Mark house. Child Mark house.” Then she pointed to a house a few houses down and said, “my house. Child my house.”

At first we thought she was showing us how close her house was to Mark’s house when they were little kids. But she kept pointing to things on the house like the door and the thatched roof and saying, “Mark house”. This is what Mark’s and her childhood houses looked like.

Remembering Shin Sang-Ok

Shin Sang-Ok was a South Korean film director that was kidnapped and brought to North Korea on orders of Kim Jong-il. After spending a few years in a gulag, he was ordered to make movies for the DPRK. He was eventually able to escape while at a film festival in Vienna. After a few years spent making movies and living in the US he moved back to Korea. There he continued making films and wrote a book called The Kingdom of Kim. I have been dying to read this book, but as of now there is no English translation of it.

Ice Slide

29th Saturday: Water and Ice

We got up very early and set out by car to the other side of Korea. We went to Sokcho, an area that is known for its mountain Seoraksan, its beach, Sokcho Beach, for being super cold in winter, and for being close to the DMZ. In fact it used belong to North Korea but it was given to South Korea after the Korean war.

The cousin told us that we would go to Waterpia, but I never understood what she said until we were actually there I and saw the name written. She said it was an outdoor waterpark. I thought that this was not such a good idea. I had just gotten over the fever I had and was just starting to feel normal. An outdoor waterpark in the middle of winter did not sound like fun. (Look at the photo above. Does that inspire you to go swimming?)

When we checked into our pension I looked out the window and all I saw was snow and ice. I also saw the outdoor pool and it was practically frozen.  “This is crazy! I’m not swimming in this.” The cousin laughed at me. “No. Waterpia. No.” She waved her hand at the frozen pool when she said no.

Frozen Fun

Then I saw the indoor portion of the pension’s water area. It looked steamy but small. It looked more like something I could deal with so I headed towards it. “No,” the cousin said again, “Waterpia.” We got back into the car and drove a few miles down the road.

When we got there I read the sign. WATERPIA. Oh, that’s what she was saying. This place was huge! I put on my swimsuit and swim cap (Everyone must wear a swim cap.) and got ready for some fun.

Purple Water

This place was amazing. The water was heated in both the indoor and outdoor pools and rides. There were pools, slides, hot tubs for many, hot tubs for two, hot tubs filled with green tea, hot tubs filled with what looked like purple Kool-aide, green Kool-aide, and pink Kool-aide, cool hot tubs, almost boiling hot tubs, and hot water stations to warm up in while you move from hot tub to hot tub outdoors.

There was also a food court and a hot dog stand. (The hot dogs where no good unless you like your hot dog with sweet sauce on it.)

There was one ride with a long line. We didn’t know what it was for but if the line was long it had to be good. (The starting photo for the video shows a version of the ride with no cover. In the winter a cover is put on to keep the warmth in. This makes the ride dark and creepy.

I didn’t like it. It was nice enough to try once, but not a second time. The older I get the less I like thrill rides. But Mark and the kids loved it. Around closing time when there was no line they rode it again and again and again.

I prefered relaxing in the various hot tubs. My favorite was the 40 degree hot tub. Mark pointed out that 40 degrees was the temperature of my fever a few nights back. Now I could see what the fuss was about. I could not stay in that hot tub for too long; it was too hot.

losing at Uno

The following day, Sunday the 30th we spent driving back to Seoul, watching cartoons in Korean and playing card games. Mark could not be beaten. This cause the men to start drinking which did not improve their chances of winning.

Underground Coffee

31st Monday: Free day in Seoul

I’ve lived in Korea for 2 years and one thing I’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to doing it, is have lunch or coffee in one of those lovely shops in the subway. I don’t mean a place near the subway or just outside the turnstiles, but in the station underground. When I lived in Korea and I used the subway I was always on my way to go somewhere. The most I ever had time for was a vending machine coffee or a newsstand kimbab. This day we stopped at a station, found a nice coffee shop with tables and chairs (two of the first and four of the latter), and we ordered some coffee and dessert.

Wouldn’t you rather eat some nice stew?

Before we got to the subway station with the coffee and waffles, we walked over Mapo Bridge. This bridge is one of the most popular bridge for depressed people to jump off from. It has become such a problem that it was renamed Life Bridge. There are many posters and signs along the bridge showing you other things you can do that would be better than jumping, like eating great food or playing with your kids. There are statues that encourage giving life one more try and a suicide hotline you can call along with a free public phone for the hotline.


Of course we had to stop by Seoul Station to visit our favorite gamjatang place. This place offers other stews, but why bother?

When I worked at a public school in Seoul I would always have to make sure to get to the cafeteria early on gamjatang day. Normally the teachers do not go back for seconds and thirds, but everyone does on gamjatang day. (Teachers and students ate different meals in different cafeterias. They gave the kids pizzas and burgers while giving teachers Korean food.)

Once I made the mistake of catching a student writing on the desk and had to stay after class to watch her (It was an all girls’ school.) wash every desk in the class. By the time I got to the cafeteria it was 45 minutes into lunch and all that was left was rice and gamjatang sauce. All the meat and potatoes were gone. After that I never punished anyone on gamjatang day!


We left Korea the next day. Our suitcase was filled treats from Korea like hazelnut coffee, electronics, and Twix. The prices of everything in Korea is so much lower than in Japan! We bought so much stuff I was worried our suitcase would be overweight. It was, but since we were together and our other bag was so underweight, they didn’t bother us about it.

Goodbye South Korea! See you next time.

All Pictures

South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.

Kimbab Chungook
(Kimbab Heaven)

How to get there:

Just walk around. There are thousands of them in Seoul and throughout Korea.



The cheapest thing on the menu would be a plain kimbab for about 1,000KRW.  The plain kimbab (김밥) is a kimbab rice roll with egg, ham, carrot, spinach, pickled radish and burdock. (I’m not sure what burdock is, but if it’s part of a kimbab it must be delicious.)

The most expensive would be some sort of stew or double donkas for about 8,000KRW.


I’ve never seen one closed.



  • The food is good, hot, and inexpensive and you get served quickly even in rush hour.
  • My favorite kimbab is the chamchi (tuna) kimbab.



How to get there:

  • 37°15’56.7″N 127°00’00.8″E

From Seoul:

There are many ways to get to Suwon.

  • Bus: The easiest way would be to find a red bus that stops in your neighborhood that goes to Suwon.
  • Subway: Go to Suwon Station on line 1. Make sure to get on a train heading in Suwon’s Direction or you’ll end up in Incheon when line 1 splits. It takes about an hour and a half to get to Suwon from Seoul Station.
  • KTX: You can also take the KTX to Suwon from Seoul Railway Station. It costs 8,100KRW, but there are slower, cheaper long distances train that are around 2,500KRW.


Mr. Toilet’s House

How to get there:

From Seoul Station


9 Jangan-ro 458beon-gil (186-3 Imok-dong)
Jangan-gu, Suwon, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea

Coordinates: +37° 19′ 9.40″, +126° 58′ 40.92″

Phone: +82-31-271-9777


e-mail: mrtoilet@haewoojae.com

Cost: Free!


  • Mar – Oct:   10:00-18:00
  • Nov – Feb:   10:00-17:00


Be sure to walk the grounds behind the house.

Bongchu JimDak in Jungro
(봉추찜닭 종로점)

How to get there:

From Seoul Station


260 Gwancheol-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Coordinates: +37° 34′ 10.23″, +126° 59′ 0.55″


  • +82 2-723-9381 (Jungro)


Hours: 11:00 – 23:00 Everyday


  • There are two Bongchu Jjimdaks. One in Jungro and another in Daehakro.
  • Thisisajjimdakk restaurant.Theyonlyservejjimdak.
    • They have a few flavors of jjimdak, like curry jjimdak to choose from and you can choose the level of hotness.

KOFIC Namyangju Studios

How to get there:

From Seoul Station


Gyeonggi-do Namnyangju-si Joan-myeon Sambong-ri San100
경기도 남양주시 조안면 북한강로855번길 138


+37° 36′ 18.13″, +127° 19′ 2.32″


  • 031-579-0600
  • +82-31-579-0605
  • +82-31-579-0700



  • 19 yrs. and over, 3,000 won
  • 13-18 years old, 2,500 won
  • 4-12, age 65 and over, 2,000 won
  • (Groups of more than 30 people may receive a 500 won discount each)


  • Closed every Monday, Seollal, and Chuseok
  • Open
    • March-October: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
    • November-February: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.


  • Parking here is free.


How to get there:

From Seoul Station


24-1, Jangsa-dong, Sokcho-si, Gangwon-do
강원 속초시 장사동 24-1

Coordinates: +38° 12′ 28.95″, +128° 31′ 38.47″


  • Korea Travel Phone +82-33-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
  • Waterpia 033-635-7700



Look at this complicated grid!


  • Early morning – 06:00∼10:00
  • 1 Day – 10:00∼20:30
  • Afternoon – 17:00∼20:30
  • Night time – 19:00∼20:30


When you enter the spa you get a plastic bracelet. You don’t use money while in the spa. You just charge things with the bracelet.

Bridge of Life
(Mapo Bridge)

How to get there:

From Seoul Station

Coordinates: +37° 32′ 2.13″, +126° 56′ 14.04″


Cost: free

Hours: always available 


How to get there:

From Seoul Station

Coordinates: +37° 33′ 15.37″, +126° 58′ 20.39″


This is not an expensive restaurant. But, gamjatang is one of the most expensive dishes in the menu. It costs about 20,000KRW for a 2-person pot of stew. This will actually be too much food for 2 people but good for 3.

Most of the stews here costs about 5-7,000KRW.


I’m not sure that the restaurant has set hours. It opens when it opens. It will be closed in the morning and open by lunch. It will be closed again late at night when there are no more customers.


  • This restaurant specialises in stews and soup.
  • This is a great place to try hangover soup.


Incheon International Airport

How to get there:

There are 3 main ways of leaving or getting to the airport.

1. The Metro

  • It’s pretty easy and not expensive.
  • ₩10,000/ 10USD is more than enough to get to or from anywhere.
  • The subway even goes past Uijeonbu.

2. A red bus

  • If there is one near where you live, great!

3. An Airport Limousine (which is actually a bus)

  • This is also pretty easy.
  • It will cost about ₩8,500 for most trips or less if you have a T-money card.

4. A Taxi

  • It doesn’t matter what those taxi drivers say. This is the most expensive option.
  • You will most likely get stuck in traffic.





This is the best airport in the whole wide world!

  • Free wi-fi
  • After security check:
    • There are free showers. (Open7am-9pm)
      • You can rent a towel, buy some shampoo and soap.
      • Or you can bring your own.
    • There is a theater
    • You can learn about Korea.
    • There is a Family Mart convenience store.
  • Before security check:
    • There are lockers for your luggage.
    • There is a post office.
    • You can rent a phone.
    • There is a Family Mart convenience store.
    • There is a GS25 convenience store right before you leave the subway and enter the airport. You can get any extra money on your T-money refunded there so you can leave Korea with a zero balance on your card.


Posted in Seoul, South Korea, Suwon | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Wow, You Have 5 Friends!?

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 21, 2010

September 14, 2008

All Pictures

Happy to be back in Korea

Back Again

This was my first trip in Korea since my return. I had a new job and lots of new friends to go hiking with. I started work back on August 25 and this, when Korea celebrated Chusok, was our first long weekend. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving back in North America. Most importantly it is time away from work.

picking a trail to hike

Have you notice that I don’t go hiking with the same people twice? I can only talk them into once.

My friends and I all worked in different schools around Seoul and therefore live in different districts. I met some of my friends at the station nearest to were I live, Chang-dong, and others at Dobong Staion.

On our hike up the mountian we passed one of Sarah’s new co-workers. They talked for a little while before Sarah introduced her to us. The lady looked amazed. “Sarah, you have 5 friends! How?”

We teased Sarah for the rest of the hike.

“Man Sarah, your co-worker was really shocked that you have 5 whole friends”

“One or two, maybe. But 5? How?”

I think I’ve explained before how Koreans like to ask foreigners, “How many friends do you have?” I still don’t understand it…

David: Lord of the Hike

Do you need help?

We may have looked a bit lost and disorganized, but so what. Getting to the top is only part of what hiking is all about. I think just the fact that I woke up early in the morning and left my apartment is a big accomplishment.

But that didn’t sit well with on-looker “David”. He thought we needed a bit of guidance and motivation and he was just the man for the job.

“David is giving us dirty looks again; we better get back to the trail.”

Lord of the Hike

I’m out of shape, so I like to take breaks. Plus I really like being on mountains. The more breaks I take, the more time I can spend on the mountain. But “David” didn’t like that. He was always trying to get us going. He wouldn’t even sit down when we were sitting. He was really pushy for a guy we had just met only 30 minutes ago.

We only took this photo so we could sit without David yelling at us.

I think that eventually he just got fed up with us. Somewhere around the peak he disappeared. We just weren’t the type of lazy bums he wanted to practice his English with.

All that hiking made me hungry.

And for the record, I hiked up Dobongsan twice!

Here’s another great shot of us sitting.

All Pictures


South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.


How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°42’01.3″N 127°00’56.5″E
  • Take subway line 1 to Dobong Station.
  • Then follow the herd of people in hiking gear.



  • Free


  • If you need any type of hiking equipment you can buy it along the walk to the base of this mountain.
  • Dobongsan is a mountain in Bukhansan National Park (북한산국립공원).


Posted in Dobong, Seoul, South Korea, Uijeongbu | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

North Han Mountain

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 21, 2010

November 18, 2007

All Pictures

We’re all smiles because we’re still warm and we haven’t started the real hike yet.

Dress Warmly and Don’t be Afraid

I don’t know what I was thinking. One of my co-workers had the crazy idea of  hiking up the biggest mountain near Seoul. I’m not sure if Bukhansan is actually the biggest mountain, but that’s what we were going for. He asked everyone at work to join him and his girlfriend for the trek. I was the only one of the co-workers who showed up.

We met at Hoeryong Station early one morning to begin our climb up. I thought I was well prepared because I had a hat, scarf, and thermal underwear on. None of us were really prepared and it became apparent when we passed a little food stand selling cup noodles.

That’s when I remember that I didn’t bring any snacks with me, nor did I eat breakfast that morning. Aaron and Hee-Jung did bring snacks, nuts and dried fruit, but they didn’t have breakfast either. So we stopped to eat.

The partially frozen waterfall should have been a sign of things to come.

When we were done we started on the hike again. At first things weren’t too bad. We all had plenty of energy. We stopped every 15 minutes to climb into a dry river bed or to climb up some rocks to take interesting pictures. I was beginning to think that hiking up mountains was easy.

There are many food stalls along the easy-to-walk sections of hiking trails in Korea. Once we passed the last set, the hike got more and more tiring. It got colder. I began to notice what a bad idea hiking in running shoes was.

When you need some prayers for your hike.

There are two main problems with hiking in the winter with running shoes. First off, hiking should never, never, never be done in running shoes. Running shoes are soft and flexible. This is so your feet can bend when running. When hiking you need shoes with hard soles, so that you can walk comfortably on rocky unpaved surfaces for a long time. My feet hurt for several days after this hike.

Another disadvantage of hiking in the cold with running shoes is that they don’t keep your feet warm. Your feet sweat when you run. Running shoes are very breathable to allow your feet to dry off. Otherwise you’ll get athlete’s foot. On a cold hike,  breathability is the last thing you want. When your feet are cold, you will feel really cold.

Never hike in anything other than hiking shoes. The cheapest hiking shoes are better than the most expensive sneakers. So it doesn’t matter if you buy them at Wal-mart or Payless. If they’re comfortable and they have a hard sole, they’ll do fine.

I smiled through all the pain.

So I was freezing and my feet hurt. But when I saw the gate, I thought that my torture was almost over. Once at the gate, I knew it was not. The gate marks the end of the hike and the beginning of the climb. The smile you see in the picture above is a fake.

I wanted to stop there. I told Hee-Jung that I would meet her and Aaron when they came back down. But Aaron wouldn’t have it. “You don’t want to wuss out, do you? Besides, we’re not coming back this way. We’re going down on the other side.”

It’s always nice to have a doctor with you.

That’s when DongHee, the chiropractor entered the picture. He was hiking up Bukhansan for fun by himself. He offered to help us. He had done this hike several times this year alone and would give us pointers.

At first, I didn’t think we needed any help, unless he was going to physically carry one of us up to the top. But there were sections on the climb where I would have turned back if he didn’t tell me that is was perfectly safe.

At one point, it got very windy and we had to use a rope to hoist ourselves up. There was no way to go down since there was a long line of people waiting to pass through this very narrow section.

Hee-Jung got very scared and started to cry. I almost cried going through myself, but DongHee helped me. He went back to talk Hee-Jung through and eventually got her up the rope. It was really high up.

This is not a good place to slip.

I felt that one missed placed step could cause me to slip and I’d slide right off the face of the mountain. I had the urge to pee the whole time I was on the peak. I could not stop shaking, but I made my way to the top.

Don’t ask me to stand up or look down. I just can’t.

At the very top, my legs just stopped working. I could not make myself stand up so I just slid on my butt. Seoul was very far down. But I made it; all the way to the top! I enjoyed it, even though I was too scared to look at the view.

Don’t turn around and you’ll be fine.

All Pictures


South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.


How to get there:

By Public Transportation –

  • To to Hoeryong Station.
  • or Take bus #36, 39, 136, 139, 1148, 1151 or 9101 to Hoeryong Station.
  • It’s a 20 minute walk from the subway station. Just follow the people in hiking gear.


San 68-1 Ui-dong,
Gangbuk-gu, Seoul
South Korea


  • +82-2-909-0497~8


e-mail: pukhan@knps.or.kr



  • You can hiking any time, but you should not go at night.


  • Like most mountains in Korea there are many restaurants and vendors along the trail up this mountain.


Posted in Seoul, South Korea, Uijeongbu | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Seodaemun Prison

Posted by Heliocentrism on September 30, 2009

September 27, 2009

All Pictures


Locked Up

Seodaemun Prison was used, in the early 1900’s, by the Japanese to imprison Korean citizens who were against Japan’s annexation of Korea. The prisoners were part of Korea’s independent movement and they were brutally tortured during their time in the prison.

Seodaemun Prison

There were many manikins that demonstrated some of the many types of tortures used against the Korean prisoners. I already knew how cruel the Japanese could be, even before I saw this prison. No one did torture like the Japanese during and before World War II.

Make no mistake, there were all sorts of atrocities committed by the Japanese towards the Koreans. It was probably even more horrendous than can be imagined. The written explanations on the wall however were so over the top anti-Japanese that it was a bit comical. The Japanese were always called, “the Japanese aggressors” and the Korean’s were all but painted with halos hanging over their heads.

It reminded me of communist propaganda from China or North Korea.

More torture

Seodaemun Prison is a very educational experience. A trip here helps one to understand the ill feeling the Koreans have towards the Japanese.

All Pictures

South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.

Seodaemun Prison
(서대문 형무소)

How to Get There:


  • Adult 1,500KRW
  • Child 500KRW


  • Mar—Oct   9:30 – 18:00
  • Nov—Feb  9:30 – 17:00

Closed: Jan 1, Lunar New Year, Chuseok, Mondays , Tuesdays after Mondays that are holidays



  • After the Japanese were driven out of Korea, this prison was used by the Korean government. After that, it was turned into a museum.


Posted in Seodaemun, Seoul, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Korea’s Aesthetics

Posted by Heliocentrism on September 14, 2009

Mark getting a check up

The Eyes have it.

One thing that Korea is famous for is plastic surgery. In Gangnam, the posh part of Seoul, you will find “Aesthetic Clinics” left and right. Even in the not so fancy areas there are many “Aesthetic Clinics” but most of them look a bit sketchy and far from aesthetically pleasing. I don’t know of anyone who has had plastic surgery while in Korea, other than an acquaintance here and there, but I do know Mark. He got his eyes done.

A happy customer

Surgery in Korea generally costs less than say, back in the states. I met a guy who had brain surgery last year on Halloween for about 2,000USD. He was a teacher and had the national health insurance. His surgery was covered by the government health insurance*, but non-necessary procedures will not be covered.

They are still pretty inexpensive though. That is why people who are in Korea either visiting or working, will get some “work” done while they’re here. And, there are doctors galore to accommodate them.


Mark’s Eyes

If you have been following my blog you may have noticed Mark. He is featured in many of my entries. I met him this year at a Lunar New Year’s celebration event. Since then we’ve gone on many trips together.

He used to look like this:

eating green tea ice cream

Now he looks like this:


Do you see the difference?

Mark had LASEK eye surgery and no longer needs to wear his coke-bottle glasses. He looked around on several forums online to find a good doctor and picked Dream Eye Center. It cost him about 1,500USD because he got a “foreigner discount”. (I’m not sure if they still do the “foreigner discount”.)

10 hours after surgery Marks eyes were burning, so he cooled them down with a little noreabang.


The surgery itself took about 15 minutes with a few minutes of prep.  All the eye tests had to be done again and again to check for any changes in his eyes. This is what most of the time was spent on. He went in one Saturday with his glasses and left an hour and a half later with burning eyes minus the glasses. His vision improved over the weeks and months. He has had several check-ups to make sure that everything was still going well. His vision is now almost 20/20.

Before his vision was -5.5 and -6.1 but I can’t find the conversion to the 20/20 scale. Let’s just say that without his glasses, Mark was helpless and could not function on his own. For amusement, I used to hide his glasses right in front of him and watch him blindly feel for them.

eye drops

Right after the surgery though, his eyes stung especially in the morning when he woke up. He was constantly using eye drops. One contained steroids to strengthen his eyes. The other was to fight against bacterial infection. He still uses the eye drops that contains steroids.

***** UP DATE Dec-2013 *****

Years later Mark’s vision is still 20/20. Even though he no longer lives in Korea to come in for check-ups his eyes are very healthy and he has had no problems.


Mark got 2 Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf gift cards for filling out an assessment form

* A Word about the National Health Insurance

I know of a few people who have gotten sick or had accidents while working in Korea and had the national health insurance. Some have had no problems with paying their hospital fees, others have. The problem is the hospitalization fee.

You do have to pay for medical attention. You might even have to pay thousands of dollars, or millions of won, for surgery and/or hospital stay. The national insurance will only pay part of the fees for needed procedures and will not pay for anything that is considered unnecessary. The co-pay is not small for some surgeries.

Most medical treatments here are a lot cheaper than in most countries and so is the monthly cost of health insurance. I pay about 85,000KRW a month. When I get sick and need to see a doctor I pay about 3,000KRW for my visit and about 3,000KRW for my individually wrapped medication. But if I needed major surgery I would expect to pay thousands of dollars, like my friend who had the 2,000USD brain surgery.

Mark and his doctor

That said, if you do decide to go to Korea to teach for a year know that the national health care is not free. If you never get any serious injures, it’s really cheap. If you know that you will do activities where you might get hurt, like playing sports regularly or using a scooter, make sure to have some extra “should in case” money or extra health insurance for an emergency.

Posted in Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Free Bikes in Seoul

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 28, 2009

Free Biking along the Han

We ♥ Free

From time to time my friends and I like to get free bikes, find a river or stream, and bike alongside it. We all get so excited that we are using really nice bikes without paying for them that we forget that what we are doing actually counts as exercise. Anytime we do remember, we stop and get some ice cream, subs, or samgyeopsal (삼겹살).

Which bike should I pick?

Mmmm samgyeopsal…

There are other free things to do in Seoul, but many aren’t worth mentioning. Lot of them are one time deals.

What a workout!

Free exercise equipment for old people in parks

Well, they aren’t just for old people. No one will yell at you if you use them. But, the exercise equipment in parks tend not to have very much resistance so they will only benefit the old and weak.

There are many types of machines. Some are hard to figure out. Like the one above, who’s only purpose seems to be flipping people upside down.

You can go to any given park in Seoul in the morning or evening and see herds of old folks twisting and swinging themselves as they gossip and complain about their grandkids.

He’s sooo strong.

I don’t speak Korean well enough to know for sure that they are talking about their grandkids. I just know old people and they’re all the same really.

Some parks do have more serious gym equipment like weights. You might see a bench press just out in the open. Some have the barbells chained to the bench press. Others have the weights in an unlocked shed near by. No one seems to use them except for curious foreigners like my friends and me, looking for a photo-op.

South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.

How to get there:

There are many spots along the Han River that lend out free bikes. There are also places that will rent them for a fee. You just have to know where the free places are. I know of three.

You may think that the free bikes would be old crappy bikes, but your assumption would be wrong. Most of the free bikes are quiet nice and many of them are new. The ones in Nowon still had some of their plastic wrapping on them when we went there.

#1. Jamsil Phone # (02-3431-3480)

It’s near exit number 1 of Jamsil station. It’s across the street from Quizno’s and it looks like the picture on the right.

#2. Nowon-gu.

You can go to either Junggye station or Nokcheon station and follow the map below to either bike place. These bikes are newer than the ones in Jamsil. One of the bike houses was just built in February (2009).

Here are some others. I don’t have any first hand information about them, but here is what I found out online.



Just bring a photo ID like your ARC or a driver’s license from any country and a phone number for a cell phone that you should have on you in case they need to call you. At Nowon, Tom found that sweet talking will do if you have forgotten to bring an ID card. But unless you’re as charming as Tom, don’t count on it.

Hours: It depends on the bike rental place.

  • Jamsil:   9:00-17:30 everyday except rainy days
  • Nowon: 9:00-18:00 everyday except rainy days
  • Both Jamsil and Nowon places allow you to use the bike as long as you like provided that you bring them back by closing time.
  • The bikes are first-come, first-served.
  • Not many people use these free bikes, so there are usually many to choose from.
  • The free bike place in Nowon near Nokcheon station had bikes for handicapped people too.


Click for Google maps

Posted in Jamsil, Nowon, Seoul, South Korea | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Korea’s DMZ

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 26, 2009

February 14, 2009

All  Pictures

Getting our official passes

Being briefed: The Un-nice Neighbors to the North

The DMZ is the closest to North Korea I will ever get, unless I manage to somehow raise Chinese-official-bribe money.* But I get the feeling that even if I were to cross the DPRK border I would still have no idea how the average North Korean lives. There is a huge cloud of mystery around this “communist” country because they have closed themselves off from the rest of the world.

* In May 2013, I actually visited North Korea. No Chinese officials were intentionally bribed.

North Korea: What I know…

1. They are not actually Communist.

What North Korea has is a dictatorship. You’ve all heard of Kim Jong Il, the dear leader and president of the DPRK. Well… actually the president is the dear leader’s father Kim Il Sung the Great Leader, the late Kim Il Sung. (There’s no rest for the wicked!) He is the only person to ever preside over a country from beyond the grave.

North Korean Building (A few years after this photo is taken, I would stand at that same door.)

2. They’re starving over there, or at least they were.

Japan, China, the United States, the United Nation, many European aid organizations, and the Republic of Korea (the good one) regularly give aid to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. At least they did until North Korea kicked most of them out the country and pissed off the rest.

North Korea was quite prosperous back in the 60’s but the 80’s brought a recession, the 90’s brought the collapse of the USSR,  and now their few decades of living high on the hog are long over.

They had a famine in the late 90’s in which as many as 3 million people may have starved to death. Even before the famine the DPRK was secretly receiving aid from the USSR. But, once the Soviet Union changed their political stance and started trading with South Korea, because unlike the north the south could and did pay their bills, North Korea shut them out too.

Then in 2006 there was a flood that destroyed a large percentage of their crops. It is still unknown how many people have died from starvation because of that flood or what the population of North Korea is now. It is very hard to get accurate information from North Korea.

3. The DPRK has the most Human-rights violations in the world.

In South Korea I’ve seen people protesting against China and its policy of returning North Korean defectors. North Koreans sneak into China for jobs. Their goals are to send money back home and sometimes to save up enough money to get to South Korea where they will be safer. North Koreans who are returned to their country are sent to concentration camps and stay there for a few months to a few years. Some are just shot, but that does not happen often.

The same is true for political prisoners, some abductees, some people who have known relatives in South Korea, and family members of anyone returned to North Korea. People in these categories are more like to never leave the camps. However those in the gulags for dissension are there for a few years or decades for “re-education” and have some sliver of hope of leaving one day. For more information about life in a DPRK prison camp, I recommend “Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol-Hwan. The book shows what could be described as “a fate worse than death”.

The Bridge of No Return

4. They have Nukes.

When I lived in Japan the first time, North Korea launched 7 missiles into the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea as it is called in the Koreas). They also tested a nuclear device within their borders in October of that year. They wanted to get the world’s attention, like a little kid whom everyone has ignored.

You might wonder, “Who builds their nuclear weapons for them?”

The answer: Prisoners. This kills two birds with one stone. One, they have a never-ending supply of political prisoners that would better serve the state by dying. And two, there is no need for any expensive safety precautions with prison labor. Plus, the secrets of bomb building that any of the prisoners know don’t go far. Radiation poisoned prisoners tell no tales.

North Korean soldier

5. Most of them are in the military. 

Both men and women in the DPRK are required to complete mandatory military service. From what I’ve read the country is crawling with military personnel. Well maybe “crawling” isn’t the right word, since there aren’t that many people, but a large percentage of their population is in the military. Most songs and movies from North Korea are about the military.  The people, the ones not trying to get out and not the ones being tortured, are very patriotic, but it’s hard to tell how genuine that patriotism is. Oh… and joining the army means more food rations.

6. Electricity is sporadic. 

At certain times of the year, when North Korea is closed to tourists and other foreigners, the electricity will go out. It’s usually turn off in the evenings. It can get very cold there in the winter at night.

North Korea: Propaganda Village

7. They have propaganda galore.

TV and radio programs are filled with great news about crop production, glorification of the Dear Leader, information on how evil the West is, and how great it is to be North Korean. Movies are about how great the army is and how soldiers are so willing to give their lives for the country while singing praises to the Great and/or Dear Leader.

One of the many groups trying to help the North Korean people, sneak in videos of South Korean soap operas, to show the people how things really are in the south. North Koreans who watch the South Korean soaps are surprised that South Korea has so much and that they are not the lackeys of the Americans like the propaganda says.

Above is a picture of “Propaganda Village” which was erected to show South Korea how good the people of North Korea have it. They play speeches and music from loud speakers and mostly taunt the South Korean soldiers nearby. We’re not sure if anyone actually lives in Propaganda Village.

The Pre-DMZ tour Video

8. They have, from time to time, kidnapped people from South Korea, Japan, and other countries and lied about it.

In 2002 North Korea wanted more aid from Japan. Thinking that it had a great plan to convince Japan to give more generously, the Pyongyang government admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens between 1977 and 1983. Up until that point they had denied any accusations of kidnapping.

They thought that Japan would be so moved by North Korea’s honestly that Japan would shower them with gifts. It actually had the opposite effect. Japan not only stop any aid that was headed to North Korea, it also stopped trade and eventually shut down its borders by way of  the one and only ferry between the two countries.

When Japan asked why North Korea kidnapped ordinary Japanese citizens, North Korea said that they needed someone to teach them Japanese. They would abduct people who were walking by themselves along beaches and streets in Japan.

Though many of these victims were Japanese, they have also kidnapped Europeans. There is speculation that some of the abductions were done so that the non-Korean defectors could have wives.

South Korean fishermen get taken by the DPRK all the time. But the most famous of the abductees are Shin, Sang Ok, the director, and his movie star ex-wife, Choi, Eun Hee. This kidnapping was done by order of the Dear Leader himself, a man who LOVES movies and who is credited as executive producer in many North Korean films.

Shin Sang Ok’s book along with other personal items on display at a South Korean film studio

Mr. Shin worked in a Gulag for about 4 years before being called on by Kim Jong Il to make some films. Mr. Shin and his wife later escaped to an embassy of the United States while at a film festival in Vienna. Years later they returned to South Korea and wrote a book about the experience called Kingdom of Kim. The book has yet to be translated into English and is out of print in Korean. You can read A Kim Jong-Il Production if you are interested in the story.

9. North and South Korea are still technically at war

They may have stopped the bombing and the shooting but the war is still not officially over. I have no idea what they’re waiting for. It might be something as silly as “You haven’t lost the war if the war isn’t officially over. So whatever you do DON’T sign a peace treaty!”

He’s ready for anything!

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

This Year for Valentine’s Day a couple of friends and I signed up for a USO tour of the DMZ. It cost $44. Don’t ask what that is in KRW because I cry myself to sleep at night when I think about how badly the won is doing. At the USO you can pay in good old US dollars or in sinking Korean won.

There are some rules for going to the DMZ on the South Korean side:

  • You can wear jeans, but they have to be nice jeans lacking holes or visible English writing.
  • You must wear something with a collar, either a shirt or jacket.
  • You cannot wear anything that has English letters on it. (I assume French and German letters are banned too. I only wish I had a nonsense Japanese t-shirt to wear, something that says “I ‘Heart’ pachinko”.
  • You can’t wear open toed shoes.
  • They recommend wearing sneakers, though they must be clean, in which to walk around the tunnel.
  • You cannot point at, wave, gesture, or in any way communicate with any North Korean soldier or person standing in North Korea. They weren’t too clear on what would happen if you did. I got the impression that nothing would really happen but that they want you to think all hell would break loose and that you would personally be responsible for the fall of democracy in South Korea and the western world if you say… winked at someone on the other side.
  • You may only take pictures when the military escort says it is okay to do so.
  • You are not allowed to bring any bags near the North Korean border. North Koreans assume that bags carry bombs or worse, capitalism.
From what I hear, there are no rules like this when visiting the DMZ from the North Korean side. In fact, you are encouraged to wave to the South Koreans and even yell at them. This is supposed to be proof that North Korea is freer than South Korea.

The border of the two Koreas

To go to the DMZ with the USO you have to be at Camp Casey by 7:00 am. That way you can stand around for an hour and a half to complain about how horrible it is to be up this early on a Saturday morning just to stand around and complain. The bus actually leaves the Yongsan area at 8:30 am. The journey to the DMZ takes about 2 hours. You have to go with a tour to see the DMZ. You cannot go on your own. The USO is just one of the many companies that offer DMZ tours.

We stopped for a bathroom break when we were almost there. Then there was a passport check before entering Camp Bonifas. Bonifas was one of the guys who was axed to death while trying to trim a tree that was blocking the US and ROK army’s view of the DPRK army’s building. Because of this incident they rename the camp after him.

Once at Camp Bonifas we left our bags on our USO bus, actually it was a Hanna* Bus, and boarded one of the Republic of Korea army’s “secure” buses, constantly referred to as  a “ROK secure bus”. We were then deposited to the building where we were briefed.

* Hanna is one of the major companies in Korea. They own banks and other things.

on the ROK secure bus

Tae Kwon Do Rock Ready

We were told the mini-history of the ending of the Korean War, or the ending of the fighting, and how the DMZ came to be. There were some problems like the axing of US and ROK soldiers, the North Koreans who kept moving their buildings closer and closer to the South Korean border, and the one DPRK soldier/defector who ran into South Korea and was shot at by the North Koreans. Then we all signed a paper that said that neither the US, UN, nor ROK are responsible if we got shot and, or captured by the DPRK.

Then we got back on our secure ROK army bus and were taken to a building that was constructed for families who were split apart by the war to be reunited in. It was never used for its intended purpose because North Korea did… something evil; who knows?

I don’t remember the exact details now. But there was a lot of tension towards North Korea on the tour.

The blue building of tension. The ROK soldiers are having an intense stare down with the DPRK.

Then we stood outside in the cold and peered into North Korea. There really wasn’t much to see, just one building. I only saw one North Korean. He looked well fed. The South Koreans on the other hand were pimply faced scrawny teenagers, but they were are really tall. (Only soldiers 2 meters or taller are allowed to patrol the DMZ.)

I noticed that the ROK soldiers had very noisy shoes. When I asked about it, I was told that it wasn’t their shoes that were noisy, it was their pants. In the cuffs of their pants they have ball-bearings and springs to make noise. This was used in the Korean War to make the army sound like they had more soldiers than they really did. At one point I asked Mark, one of the guys with me, if he thought the soldier would let me see the stuff in his pants if I asked nicely. But he told me that I’d better not ask that kind of pervy question here.

Tae Kwon Do Joe

We then walked to the blue building of tension where North and South Korea meet. Half the room, the building is just one room, is safely in South Korea and the other half is dangerously in North Korea. This is where we met tae kwon do Joe, whose tae kwon do “rock ready” stance protects us all from the Red Menace. Here, I got to wander around the packed room and stroll in and out of North Korea as I pleased.

Me in North Korea

After this, the tour got a bit boring. We boarded and de-boarded the bus countless times to look at parts of North Korea. We saw Propaganda Village, the bridge of no return, and North Korea’s giant flag that is so big that it would take hurricane force winds to make it flap.

heading off to the tunnel where no photos are allowed

Evil Beneath our Feet

We then went to one of the tunnels after being forced to watch a quite forgettable South Korean propaganda video about mines… or unification… I don’t remember. But it had a crying Korean 3-year-old wandering in a mine field.

We entered the 3rd tunnel which was dug by North Korea in an effort to spy on South Korea by getting under Seoul. If only those North Koreans knew how much money that silly tunnel they were digging would rake in for the South Korean government. I’m sure they’re all spinning in their graves now.

I assume since they were caught that they were shot by either the South Korean government or the North Korean government. There’s really no safe place for a caught spy, especially if you are a mere digger.

Even the mannequins in South Korea have guns.

Its Dangerous, no really… Why are you giggling?

I would describe the whole DMZ experience as comically serious. Everything is secure, like the “secure” ROK army bus we rode in. Everything is done for your protection, like the ROK soldier’s rock ready tae kwon do stance. They say not to point at anyone or “Don’t take any pictures here” but when we looked around there was nothing but bushes to be seen and no one at which to point. Nothing felt really serious. Maybe I would have gotten shot if I had waved to that one North Korean guard… but I feel that it was a tour and the ROK and US armies put on a good show and played up the dangerousness and childishness.

There were lots of stories about how the ROK put up a flag and the next day the DPRK put up an even bigger flag. The DPRK would trash the blue building of tension and the ROK would have to clean it up. The DPRK used the US and UN flag to clean their shoes and the ROK replaced them with plastic flags so that could not happen again. I felt like I was listening to a 5 year-old talking about how bad his little brother was. “And you know what else he did…?” And I don’t for one second believe that the ROK and US armies have not done anything to taunt the DPRK soldiers… especially since I know that most of the ROK soldiers are about 19-26 years old.


When I visited the DMZ from the other side, I was hoping to once again see the Blue Building of Tension. But alas, I could not. The North Korean soldier showing us around the DMZ told us that South Korea locked the building and well, North Korea doesn’t have a key of their own.


But I do know, in all seriousness, that the North Korean government is quite brutal to its own people. I would not want to live there or be trapped there at all. But, I still want to visit. I hear that the North Korean people themselves, like people everywhere, are actually very nice.

All  Pictures


South Korea

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, boat, or train, though entry by train is rare if not damn impossible for most non-presidents of North or South Korea.
  • Most citizens from many countries do not need to get a visa before going to South Korea.
  • People of most nationalities will get a 90-day visa at the airport or ferry port.
  • To be completely sure, check with the Korean embassy in your country.






  • Korea is a generally safe country. You don’t really have to watch out for pickpockets,muggers, or scam artists.
    • You should watch out when crossing the streets, beware of scooters on the sidewalk, and the little old ladies that will push you to get that last seat on the bus or subway.
  • Use common sense and you will be okay.
  • Things are generally inexpensive and there are many wonderful things to buy.

Enjoy Korea! I live there for 2 years and had a fantastic time.

DMZ Tour 

There are many tour groups that you can take to see the DMZ. This is the one that I recommend. At the time of this blog entry it was the cheapest.

USO (Seoul)

How to get there:

  • 37°32’27.7″N 126°58’21.4″E

Go to camp Camp Casey by way of Samgakji or Namyeong station. Before you exit the station look at the subway map. You will walk towards Samgakji if you go to Namyeong station and visa versa. The camp is halfway between the two station. You can’t miss it.



45USD (at the time of this blog entry). This can be paid in US dollars or Korean won; South Korean won!




  • You need to bring your passport to go on the tour.
  • You must wear clothes that have no rips, tears, or holes.
  • Your clothes must not have any English writing on them.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • ROK = Republic of Korea, South Korea, (the Korea I live in)
  • DPRK = The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea, (The one to stay out of)
  • USO = United Service Organizations
  • UN = United Nations


Click here for Google maps

Posted in DMZ, North Korea, Panmunjeom, Panmunjeom, South Korea, Yongsan | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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