Tuesday, February 17, 2009

1. Pyeongchang, South Korea

Hello from Korea! I apologize for falling behind in sharing with you the photos and stories of this past week's travels, racing and new location, culture, language, and food. This is the first in succession of posts that will hopefully fill you in on my time in Korea.
Pyeongchang, the county that we are in, is located in the northeastern region of South Korea. Our overnight 9 hour flight from Amsterdam to Seoul, the capital of Korea, was smooth and similar to our North America to Europe flights. We left a mild winter climate in Germany and landed in what felt like a hazy, warm spring day in Seoul (Incheon/Seoul airport actually). On a peninsula with a coastal climate, Korea's winters are mild and relatively short.

Flat coastal plains outside of Seoul and Incheon were punctuated by these high-rise apartment buildings surrounded by what looked like their agricultural resource - rows and rows of greenhouses.

Our three hour bus ride through low-lying hills, we climbed higher in the Taebeck Mountain range. Crinkle a piece of paper, and then spread it out again; once in the mountains, this is what the topography of the land looks and feels like. The mountains/hills are not terribly high, but the valleys in between are narrow and marginally flat. The farmland, for example, looks challenging as each field is scooped out and sculpted, terraced and irrigated against the natural geography. Unique to this region because of the cold winds are "fields" of fish, hung and drying on racks, and wind farms. The fish are walleyed pollack and are specifically hung to dry and freeze during the winter months in the colder mountain valleys. I've checked them out in the grocery store - no thanks. And, from various spots on the course and from our hotel, you can spot large wind turbines in the distance. As a biathlete, you take note of the flags in the stadium and the flags in the range to gage the affect on shooting. But, to see monstrous wind turbines slowly spinning does not bode for a calm day on the range. At least I am not a ski jumper - to the left of the biathlon stadium are 5 ski jumps - and have to worry whether or not a gust will push me down or blow me away.

A left hand turn up one of the valleys takes us to Yong Pong four-season resort. We are staying in a monstrosity of a hotel - GreenPia. It is by far one of our nicest accommodations, but this hotel is huge! And one of only many in this resort complex.

I am on the 10th floor and am sharing a suite with Herbert, who competes for the Netherlands . This is the view from our balcony down to the ski area one evening during the full moon. And the mild winter I mentioned, I think it is mostly man-made snow on these trails, as is the same for our race courses.

The Korean language is Hangul. Even though it looks similar to Chinese or Japanese to the western eye, Hangul is actually an alphabet, unlike Chinese characters for example. It is an alphabet unlike any other because it is not based upon another language and was developed in isolation.

However, English can be found everywhere here and most people speak it. Oddly, quite well and with idiosyncratic slang. Most signs I have seen are written in both languages, as if this was a bi-lingual country. Language has not been the only cultural exchange, American icons can be found quite easily:

South Korea is also known as "The Land of the Morning Calm," except for here. I admit I as well as most of us sleep in here because of the late training and race schedule, I open my shades and windows each morning around 9:30am to hear the buzz of the ski hill below. Two sounds in particular are below. Air pressure hoses hiss and blow off the snow "debris" from skis, boards and boots, and one early morning I awoke to a chant.

To get ready for the day, these ski instructors were stretching and chanting (counting?) in unison.

We are staying in a very nice resort that seems to cater to those with second homes or holiday condos in this mountain getaway. By the looks of the average skier snowplowing downhill, these are not regular skiers either and are probably here on vacation from the south or the city. The hotels, condos, and amenities are all very western and remind me more of a western ski resort. So, first impressions of Korea are more from culture similarity shock. Or, Korea's pop culture? In order to find more traditional and oriental glimpses of Korea, you really have to look. Near our hotel there is a Buddhist burial site and a small pagoda:

Ornate lotus and floral designs dominate these small traditional structures. Looking closer into the designs, it is as if they are telling a story. A distinctive feature of a pagoda, or even the more traditionally built homes here, are the up-turned corners of the roof's eaves. Often, dangling from them are wind bells or chimes. The photo below illustrates the bend in the roof line, well it sort of does.

Near, what I understand to be a Buddhist burial site, are these stones, which actually give you a better picture of their written language. Buddhism and Catholicism are the two main religions of the Korean people, whereas Confucianism and Korean Buddhism traditionally have a greater influence on the their culture, politics, and world view.

By the end of World Championships, I will have probably eaten rice at least once a day for almost 14 days straight. There are two big crocks of sticky white rice on the buffet tables. Aside from the side "pasta station" most entrees (side dishes are what they are actually referred to because they accompany the rice) are meant to be served over or with rice. Plus, chopsticks are a lot more fun to eat with. And, add some warm milk, honey and cinnamon, and I've got rice pudding.
I've passed over the big platters of raw fish for the most part, and still have not tried the the traditional Korean dish of spicy kimchi. It consists of pickled or fermented vegetables like cabbage, a "mountain vegetable" like daikon, sweet potato, potatoes, and garlic. But, I have really enjoyed the sushi, and the accompanying flavors of soy sauce, wasabi and ginger. Dishes like sweet and sour pork, and wild duck have also been good. I will have also gotten my fill of salmon by the time I leave too. Its all been a welcomed change of pace from heavy German meat dishes. And perhaps once the races are over I will being more adventerous at meal time.

On a run the other morning, I took one of my favorite shots, which looks like a stone Buddhist mandala, a sacred Buddhist symbol:

Perhaps one of my lasting impressions of Korea, will be the wind. There is always a breeze, a gust, a draft. A constant zephyr blows and howls here. I think these buttressed trees (which you see everywhere) are a better illustration than the wind turbines and my misses in the Sprint race.

And secondly, the use and mis-use of the English language. Not that it is wrongly used or translated, because so far, most interactions have been humorous. I snapped a photo of this sign, which when I first saw it, got a laugh out of its explantation: CAUTION SLIP! Obviously, they meant slippery. However, two days of rain and warm wether decimated the ski area and our race courses and turned what snow was left into either pools of water or solid ice. This sign took on a whole new meaning when watching novice skiers make their way to the lifts and parking lots. I wish I had Warren Miller there to commentate.

Tonight is the Individual Race - 15km, 4 shooting stages. So, I am off.


Anonymous said...

Haley you are amazing! We read the Adirondack Daily Enterprise story of your sucess last week as an all points bulletin - all activity stops !! for the 4th/5th/6th team, who all happened to be in one room at midday when FS hurrie dthe paper to us hot off the press (OK in from the cold....) Hope you heard their raucus cheers and hoots form the exhuberant children! The headline: "Personal Best for Haley Johnson at World Cup Biathalon." What a wonderful accomplishment for you and a definite day brightener and inspiration for all of us here. The 6th grade girls started immediately talking about how you must have really solved the shooting challenges...... Be well, safe travel; we look forward to seeing you when you can make it next week. LC

Herb Goldstein said...

I was there in 1968-1969 and it is very cold. In the -0 to -15%.

I would love to go back to see TDC and the DMZ.

Herb Goldstein said...

I was there from 1968 to the middle of 1969. It is very cold and would love to see TDC and the DMZ

h a l e y j o h n s o n said...

I hope you are able to get back to South Korea - especially to see its transformation leading up to the Olympics.