Work Trip: Geoje Island, South Korea
Jangseungpo-dong: Haegeumgang Island, Oedo Botania, Health Walk Road, Neungpo Yangiam Sculture Park, Yangjiam Lighthouse
Jisepo: Geoje Fishing Village Folk Museum, Geoje Shipbuilding Marine Culturial Center
Busan: Busan City Tour, United Nations Memorial Cemetery, Busan Museum, Haeundae Beach, Busan Aquarium
Trip to Korea
The stars and planets seemed to align one night and I found myself with the unique opportunity to travel to South Korea for work for two weeks with my boss. An all expense paid trip to Korea? How could I say no?! I’ve never been to Asia as a birder so I was very excited to visit a country where all the birds would likely be new to me. The bonus of course is the experience of a different country, culture, and cuisine.
One of the first things I noticed about Korea as this was very obvious at night when flying into the Busan (pronounced Poo-san) airport was that city growth was concentrated to the valleys and there was no development on the hills around and in the city. At night, the valleys were flood with neon and fluorescent streams of light. Islands of the dark, tall, untouched, forested hilltops contrasted drastically against the cities pooled below. It was an interesting comparison to US cities, which has no qualms and in fact relishes in the idea of taking over mountain and hills. However, all of the coastal towns and cities abut harbors, rivers, and seas. So roads built on the former coastline, and buildings are lined up along the harbors, which are now constrained by seawalls. An interesting thing about the living arrangements is that most people live in apartment complexes, which are arranged like clusters of dominos towering 20 stories tall. At night, the glow of ill green bad 70s fluorescent lights pours out of each apartment and silhouettes the drying laundry in the front glassed in sunroom.
We stayed on Geoje (pronounced Ko-jay) Island, which is located on the southeast coast of Korea. The island is relatively small, but is the second largest island of Korea. The main source of income is the shipyards, one by Samsung and the other by DSME. Our host put us up in the 5 star hotel Samsung Hotel, which deserved its 5 stars both in quality of service and accommodations and in price. The hotel is located in Geoje city right next to the Samsung shipyard. So most people staying in the hotel are there for business with the shipyard. But some vacationing Koreans also stay at the hotel.
I had a room facing the harbor and the rest of Geoje city. During the morning hours I was able to watch the sun slowly peak over the mountains and illuminate the harbor below. At night the neon glow of the city reflected brightly off the sea. The rooms on the other side of the building did not enjoy as great of a view; they overlooked some sports fields and the Samsung shipyard. However, at one point there was a ship parked in the harbor that my room overlooked and occasional vibrations of machinery could be heard and felt throughout the night.
We were working in collaboration with KORDI (Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute), which is located in the town of Jangmok 20 minutes away from Geoje city. Every workday we would travel by a KORDI shuttle through cities and towns and past rice fields and vegetable plots to reach our workplace. It was a rather pleasant journey, depending on how crazy the shuttle bus driver was driving. The institute itself is located on a small harbor with bamboo, pine forests, and farmland surrounding the campus.
Food Lover's Adventure
Of course one of the best things about traveling to a foreign country is the gastronomic adventure. I’ve enjoyed Korean food before, but eating the authentic food was a real treat. There wasn’t a meal I had in Korea that I didn’t enjoy. Even though we didn’t know how to order in the restaurants (restaurants with pictures were a great help, but not always available), the people working in the restaurants were general very patient with us or would end up bring out the most popular dish.
Other meals included kimchi stew, seafood stew, and Korean “fast food.” We went to a couple of fast food restaurants. One was a chain restaurant where they offered the standard Korean fare beebimbop, stews, rice dishes, etc. And the other was the food court on top of the HomePlus store (a mega chain grocery/department store). Even though they were “fast food,” the quality was good and I thought they were delicious. However, I’m not a good connoisseur of Korean food so my Korean food standards are practically none existent. There were many street food vendors scattered through the cities. I didn’t have enough time to try their street food nor was brave enough to try something I didn’t know what is was exactly. However, I did try “hoddeok,” a fried pancake filled with sugar and spices. It was deliciously wonderful crisp on the outside and warm and dough on the inside a true treat to try on the street.
One of the best things about trying all the restaurants is the various banchan or small dishes that come with each meal. All restaurants have their different dishes so it’s interesting when something new should appear. The most common ones are kimchi, dried anchovies, and pickled bean sprouts. Some restaurants would serve soybean or chili-based soups to accompany the meal. One of the accompanying dishes I like was “gyeranjjim,” an egg mixture that was streamed in the black ceramic pots so it was bubbling hot when it reached the table. The egg was very fluffy and flavorful.
The food was generally spicy, but for me not too unbearable (yes, my nose ran quite a bit on the trip, but it was still a good dinning experience). The spiciest food actually came from the institute’s cafeteria. The women preparing the meals apparently loves spicy food, so of course all the food will be spicy. If one of the native Koreans complained about the food being too spicy, you knew it had to be pretty bad.
Still I managed to make the best of my time to bird in this foreign country. Before going to work in the mornings, I would take 15 to 30 minutes to bird around the Samsung hotel. Down by the harbor there was a sewage outfall (I don’t think they have sewage treatment plants), so gulls, herons, magpies, crows, and egrets would gather to partake in the bounty. The number of birds and the species never seemed to vary during the short stay that I was there. Most numerous around the hotel were the Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls. Occasionally a Vega Gull, Grey Heron, White Wagtails, and Little Egret would turn up. Once a drake Common Pochard was diving near the outflow.
I spent most of the daylight hours working inside, however, I found time to make an escape to do some birding. Work in Korea is very regimented, which I’m not used. Everyone starts at 9 AM and stops at 6 PM (sometimes they go longer, but the majority follow this schedule). Lunchtime seems to be an important hour. At noon, everyone is in a rush to get to the on-campus cafeteria, where they eat quickly and finish off by downing a cup of cold green tea. Then they rush off to their dorm rooms or to play soccer or ping-pong until 1 PM, when it’s time for a quick cup of instant coffee (very popular in Korea) before going back to work. I’m not sure if this daily regiment is the standard for Korean companies, but at least the after lunch free time allowed me to do a little bird watching. I saw a few different birds than the ones more common around the larger cities, but having a short time to bird was somewhat frustrating. Even more frustrating was the fact that most of the birds in Korea seemed very wary and shy. I wasn’t sure if there weren’t very many bird species present or if I was just missing something because they were all hunkered down from my presence. I still managed to see an Olive-backed Pipit, several Elegant Buntings (very gorgeous birds), Little Grebes, and an Eastern Buzzard at the institute.
Exploring Geoje Island
During our one weekend on the island, my boss and I were left to our own devises to explore. With a few suggestions, a map, and a cab, we were able to do OK. One day we took a cab (~10 minute ride from the Samsung Hotel) to the Jangseungpo Passenger Pleasure Boat Terminal (cab cost ~ 16,000 Won; 1 USD = ~ 1,100 Won). The boat tour (cost ~19,000 Won) would take us to Haegeumgang Island and Oedo (pronounced Way-Dough) Island (8,000 Won for entrance to Oedo). We were the only non-Koreans on the boat and the entire tour was conducted in Korean. Still it was an enjoyable trip. A couple of times the tour boat announcer passed through cabin with a package of dried squid (medium sized only 2 feet long). We passed on that delectably chew and fragrant snack.
As we left the channel, a Eurasian Kestrel streaked over the island and far behind it was a Peregrine Falcon. Suddenly a large flock of birds (maybe 50-60) seemed to explode out of thin air and land in the brush on top of the island. All this happened within the span of a few minutes and with the moving boat I was unable to identify the large group of birds (plus I didn’t know which birds would likely be found in large flocks in semi-aired scrub). The boat continued to circle around the island. On the rocky outcrops a few Temmerick’s Cormorants sunned themselves and many Black-tailed Gulls circled the waters. The boat then went back up north to Oedo Island, passing several tour boats racing toward the narrow channel of Haegeumgang Island.
Oedo Island is owned by a couple, who spent many years (and a lot of money) developing an English style garden on the island. We had 1.5 hours to explore the island before the tour boat would come back and pick us up. There were a lot of tourists on Oedo from the other pleasure boats that were moored around the island. The gardens were very impressive, even during the fall. I’m sure it would be more impressive with all the flowers in bloom, but it was still beautiful to see the garden’s landscaping and topiaries. A good number of bushes and plants remained in bloom. Some of the sculptures seemed a little out of place, like the Roman/Greek sculpture replicates. And some of the sculptures were just plain weird, like these homoerotic boys in questionable posses. However, the gardens were undoubtedly beautiful.
We loaded back onto the boat and traveled back to Jangseungpo-dong. Besides the numerous Black-tailed Gulls, there was a noticeable lack of seabirds. Also absent were any sea mammals. I wasn’t expecting whales, but at least a seal. I don’t know if it is due to overfishing or hunting, but there was a definite void along the coastline. The area in which we were traveling was the Hallyeohaesang National Marine Park. However, I don’t know what the marine park designation means, if anything. I still saw aquaculture and fishing during the boat tour.
Along the way back to the terminal, we could see the ships that DSME had built and were ready for pick up. DSME, the other shipyard, is located in Okpo, which is not as big as Geoje. The boat dropped us off in the middle of a dried fish/seafood market. The warm sun was drying fresh ribbonfish, squid, and other fishes that were neatly laid out on screened tables. Surprisingly it didn’t smell too badly.
The Geoje Art Museum was located near the piers so we ducked in there to check out their small free exhibit hall. The works of only two artists were displayed at the time. I don’t have a great taste in art appreciation, but I enjoyed the paintings of one artist that created illustrations similar to Roald Dahl’s.
Still having a good chunk of the sunny afternoon free, we decided to walk up the hill toward the Yangjiam Lighthouse. We ended up on the “Health Walk Road,” which followed the contours of the forested hillsides up above the beaches and cliff sides below. Along the walk, I spotted a large flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills. They behaved much like Bushtits, flocking closely together as they traveled through the brushy hillside while calling to each other. Perched on the power line was a Bull-headed Shrike. It was a small shrike with a very thin tail in comparison to its body. It looked nervous, as if deciding if it should fly away. I thought we were making it nervous until I looked up to see two Black-eared Kites circling directly overhead.
We followed a side path down to a beach that was comprised of large smooth rocks tumbled and polished by the sea. Large amounts of trash were scattered above the water line. A lot of the Styrofoam oyster farm floats break free and wash up on shore. Judging from the large accumulation of trash it didn’t look like there was any effort to clean up the beaches. An odd bunker sat at in the hillside of the beach - perhaps a remnant of the Korean War?
The other day that we were able to explore Geoje Island, we took a taxi over the mountains to the Geoje Fishing Village Folk Museum and Ship Building Industry Museum (~16,000 Won). The entrance to both of the museums was under 5,000 Won, super cheap. Both museums covered the history, went into the modern techniques, and explored future possibilities of the industries. They both contained levels of propaganda (the ship building one more so), but I found the fishing museum more interesting. I got to understand the modern aquaculture techniques and see all the food we’ve been eating. Amusingly enough, both museums had 3D simulator rides. The fishing museum at least had one that was related to the topic of fishing, but also featured the cartoon logos of the city fish (a cartoon male and female cod). I think it was a way of attracting future generations to the museums, trapping them there, and trying to inoculate them with the beauty and greatness of the fishing industry.
After the museums, we walked up the highway and caught a bus back to Jangseungpo-dong. We were originally planning on walking south on the highway to the beaches, but it was pouring down rain in the afternoon and the road south led up over a large hill. Our new plan was to walk out to the Yangjiam Lighthouse that we tried to reach the day before. We walked through town in the pouring rain and up the hill through to the Neungpo Yangjiam Sculpture Park. By the time we reach the park, the clouds started to break up and the sun would peak through the thick layer of clouds occasionally. The rest of the afternoon was very pleasant. We followed the trail from the sculpture park toward the lighthouse. We saw our first sign of wildlife (excluding a rat we saw at a fishing pier) a red squirrel with furry ears.
Small flocks of Grey-capped Greenfinches flew from the treetop, and the ever-present Brown-eared Bulbuls made their usual loud racket from the depths of the trees. The highly colorful and ubiquitous Daurian Redstart emitted its loud repetitive high-pitched call from open tree branches, while bouncing its tail with each squeak. Eastern Great Tits gleaned the trees and moved quickly among the pine branches Japanese Whiteeyes while giving off their soft calls. I caught a glimpse of a Eurasian Jay before it took off down the hillside. Its white wing spots and reddish head and breast streaked past before I could get a good look. I could see its white rump bounce up and down in the undulating flight before I lost sight of it. We walked past a couple of more flocks of Vinous-throated Parrotbills in a gleaning-feeding frenzy as they moved through the drying vines and underbrush. The trail dipped down back to the road and we began following the road through the pine forest toward the lighthouse. Several Large-billed Crows were making a racket and taking turns dive-bombing a Black-eared Kite. The kite crouched in a defensive posture and finally gave up flying away with the crows in hot pursuit.
Before flying back home, we spent two nights and one day in Busan with our host. To reach Busan, we took a ferry from Geoje Island and much to my delight it was during the daylight hours so I’d be able to do some birding off the boat. We took the Gangok ferry, which was close to KORDI. Unfortunately it was very rainy so the visibility wasn’t very good, but at least the side walkways were shelters so I had some protection from the rain and wind. The largest concentrations of birds that I saw was on a small fish net pen in the small harbor of the Gangok ferry terminal. Many gulls where gathered feasting on fish bits. Herons and egrets stood on the buoys hunched over looking for a stray fish. Among the concentrations of birds, I saw one Great Crested Grebe and noticed one outstandingly darker mantled gull that was a Slate-backed Gull. These fishing nets seemed like a good place to bird if one had a high powered spotting scope or a boat. The rest of the trip was uneventful as birds go. A few Black-tailed Gulls followed the ferry looking for a handout, but even they gave up as the weather seemed a little too dismal. However, I did catch a glimpse of what I think are finless porpoises. So I was pretty satisfied seeing that some marine mammals still existed in these seas. During our crossing, we got good views of the bridge they were building from Busan to Geoje Island a massive and impressive project that they hope to have finished by next year.
Busan is a large city (about half the size on Seoul and the second largest city of South Korea), so it was very different then Geoje. One of the good things about the city is their subway system. Although we didn’t ride the subway, it looked like an easy way to get around the city great for sightseeing. We stayed at the Hotel Paragon located on the western edge of the city and close many shopping and eating areas. The hotel was definitely not the Samsung hotel, but it has the basics accommodations. I thought of it as a Motel 6 trying to be fancy with a mini-bar and fluffy pillows. It was about as run down and as clean as a Motel 6. Finding hair around the sink, in the bathtub, and in the soap dish doesn’t make a good impression. It was sufficient for a place to sleep and shower. I’m just glad I didn’t have to spend a lot of time in Busan at the Hotel Paragon.
For the one day we were in Busan, our host took us on the Busan City bus tour (10,000 Won), which starts off next to the Busan Station (the train station to Seoul). The buses run every 40 minutes along three different routines. One travels up the northwest side of Busan during the day, one on a similar route during the night, and the other one travels down the southwest side of the coast. We took the bus up northward and got off at the United Nations Memorial Park and the Busan Museum. We walked around both rather quickly because we had only 40 minutes until the next bus could come by. The memorial was solemn and beautiful as it took a lot of planning to honor the fallen. The Busan Museum (free on Saturdays) took us through the history of Busan dating back as far as artifacts could be found. It was an interesting museum with enough explanations that English speakers could understand it. It would have been a little nicer to spend a little more time learning about Busan’s and Korea’s past.
We finished up the bus tour that took us over the Gwangan bridge and back to the bus station. The tour was OK overall, but not something I would pick out for myself. The tour could have easily been done by subway, then traffic would lessen travel time and there would be no time constraints at destinations. I would have loved to seen the Busan Marine Natural History Museum, the large fish and produce markets, the temples, Geumgang Park, and especially the Nakdonggang Estuary (all reachable by subway and walking). The estuary supposedly supports a large concentration of migrating and wintering birds. But timing and interest with the people I was traveling with didn’t allow it. Perhaps one day if I return I will be able to enjoy more of this city and what it has to offer.
I had a great time experiencing a new country. However, after two weeks away, I was more than happy to be back home with new experiences and stories to share with my family and friends.
Other tidbits I learned/observed about Korea
The typical age people get married is 28-30 for woman and a little older for men. I learned this because I was asked my age several times and if I was married (both of which they were surprised at the answers, because I guess I look younger and am married).
It’s hard getting money out of cash machines in small cities (even the ones with the common banks) and even Busan. The only places I’ve been able to take out money is at the hotel ATM or by asking the hotel where foreign ATM cards may be accepted. Also cash can be charged to credit cards through the hotel, which will give you a reasonable exchange rate. I didn’t try this.
I expected more people to smoke in Korea, but at least in Geoje it wasn’t too bad. Many of the restaurants don’t have smoking policies, but I never really felt like the air inside was thick with smoke (this might also be due to all the ventilation in BBQ places).
Koreans seem to love to eat. Yet I never saw an overweight Korean there. I think it because of their limited intake of meat (despite all the BBQ, which has meat but in relatively small quantities compared to the American 12 oz steak and potato meal), lack of dairy fat, limited amounts of processed foods (few corn-based bi-products), and high consumption of fresh foods.
Koreans use a lot of garlic and onions. I don’t think I’ve eaten so much onion until this trip. There were very few nights where I woke up without the taste of onion in my mouth. I liked the taste of the onions as they went down, but not 6 hours later (and after brushing my teeth) at 3 AM. It isn’t a pleasant experience for me.
Geoje is a relatively rich city because of the two shipyards. Because of the large employment opportunities, I notice any homelessness or poverty. It was also a relatively clean city (minus the sewage outflows). The city must have been swept on a daily basis because there were no public garbage cans.
As a larger city, Busan does have homeless people (we saw one, in the short amount of time we were there). And having no garbage cans and having a large amount of people travel the streets, the streets aren’t as kept.
Driving in Korea seems crazy. Running red lights is the norm as is having streets that look more like parking lots. The police don’t seem to care about traffic violations (they do run breathalyzer checkpoints though). Drivers rarely if ever stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Mopeds and motorcycles are something to look out for when walking. They don’t seem to follow traffic rules they drive on the sidewalks, on the shoulders, in the crosswalks, etc. So as a pedestrian in a large city like Busan, you have to be very careful when getting around. Even when you think it’s safe in a narrow road with vendors set up on both sides, a moped will come racing through.
If you are white, people in Busan will likely stare at you. In Geoje, this doesn’t happen as often, probably because white people likely do a lot of business on Geoje Island with the two shipyard companies. In Busan, there are less foreign tourists.
Things I read about Korea that were dispelled
Giving and receiving things (gifts or money) with two hands This isn’t always the case, only a few times have I noticed the bill or change being given with two hands. I don’t think the majority notices this tradition anymore, at least not in Geoje or Busan.
Bring gifts to a host probably not necessary unless you really know the person. But the gesture is always nice. And this maybe this is different for the business world. Booze (such as whiskey) from the duty free seems to be the best general gift, especially for men.
Making eye contact I read that this was a sign of disrespect, but often I was making eye contact (something as an American we’re taught to do) and didn’t sense that this was a problem. I’ve experienced this not only at the institute (where they were more likely to interact with Westerners), but also in the city such as in restaurants.
(Click on thumbnails for larger view)