Tag Archives: south korea

Learning how to surf in Yangyang, South Korea

Our surfing instructor gives Hailey, me and Shayna some pointers on Yangyang’s Jukdo Beach (양양 죽도해변) in South Korea. SCREAMfmLondon

Find out more about Yangyang, South Korea’s coolest surfer town, in this post.

An express bus from Seoul zipped along the winding roads as city skyscrapers gave way to lush greenery and tall mountains. Yangyang, an idyllic surf town in South Korea’s Gangwon Province, is about a two-hour journey from the country’s capital. It doesn’t take long to reach the northeastern coast from Seoul, although it feels like a different world there.

We arrived late Tuesday night in order to wake up for our surf lesson, courtesy of Candy Surf, at 10 a.m. the following day.

Candy Surf offers surf lessons and accommodations in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

Candy Surf is one of the many, many surf shops in Yangyang that offer everything from surf lessons and rentals to repairs and lodgings. The shop is rustically-decorated with hardwood paneling and glass bottles of sand from the world’s beaches adorning its front desk.

Candy Surf bringing SoCal vibes to Gangwon-do. SCREAMfmLondon

Some more beachy decor. SCREAMfmLondon

We stayed overnight in the guesthouse portion of the shop. It’s set up like a typical hostel, with rows of bunk beds lining each wall of the (separate) men’s and women’s rooms.

The room comes complete with a nice floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the beach, which is perfect for ogling the surfers walking around in their wetsuits outside.

The women’s bedroom at Candy Surf’s guesthouse. SCREAMfmLondon

The rooms are clean and well-maintained. Our only major complaint about the guesthouse is that there is no indoor shower — only one outside in the alley. Which is fantastic when you’re coming back from surfing, but sucks when you’ve just finished a long bus ride.

Candy Surf’s outdoor shower room. SCREAMfmLondon

Very outdoors. SCREAMfmLondon

But, anyway, we didn’t come here to shower! We came to surf!

I have always, always dreamed of being a surfer and living in a chill beach house in Santa Cruz with all my surfer friends. But I somehow never got around to trying it in California.

I know Korea doesn’t immediately come to mind as a surf destination, but some of the Korean beaches are really hidden gems. As we woke up for our surfing lesson, the whole town of Yangyang was buzzing with talk about the great waves that were expected that day.

Candy Surf in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

First, we got suited up. Changing into a wetsuit is a whole process in itself. It’s like putting on full-body yoga pants. Once I got my legs in properly, I stood up to take a break, already sweating and breathing heavily. I kind of don’t understand how actual surfers do this quickly without getting it twisted around themselves a dozen times.

A supply of wetsuits at Candy Surf. SCREAMfmLondon

When we were sufficiently clothed, we went inside to view a slideshow presentation on some of the basics of surfing: don’t step on jellyfish, don’t “drop in” on somebody’s wave, don’t get caught in a riptide, etc.

And then we trekked down to the beach, during which process I realized that surfboards are really heavy?! I’ve always seen people carry them on their heads like it ain’t nothin’, but doing that hurt my head. But the boards are too big and unwieldy to carry in your arms without smacking people around you. Again, this ability must come down to surfer magic.

Let’s go! SCREAMfmLondon

Jukdo Beach in Yangyang is packed with surf instructors and their classes. We found our own spot to settle on the sand and practice some techniques, such as paddling and quickly standing up on the boards, before we got into the water.

Learning some technique with Shayna. SCREAMfmLondon

It wasn’t long before we were ready to hop into the ocean.

From the beach, I felt pretty scared. The waves looked huge, and the water looked frigid. As soon as I stepped close enough, a wave smashed me in the face and dunked me under. I gasped and consequently took a big drink of salty ocean water. Sputtering, I resurfaced and wiped the water out of my eyes, thinking, Oh, well. With that out of the way, the ocean didn’t seem so intimidating anymore.

Heading off on our big adventure. SCREAMfmLondon

Our instructor was a big help guiding and helping us all try to catch the waves. It was super fun, although actually getting up into a standing position on the board was pretty challenging. It was also difficult to get the timing down — when to start paddling, when to try standing, etc. — without our instructor yelling behind us.

I think with some more continuous practice, though, I could totally be an excellent surfer.

After a while, the instructor left to teach his next lesson, and we were free to play with the boards on our own. Despite feeling so apprehensive that morning, convinced I was going to embarrass myself and drown, I was really loving surfing, and I never wanted to get out of the water.

South Korea may not be known for its surfing, but my first surf lesson in Yangyang was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m so glad I did it.

Immortalized on the polaroid wall at Candy Surf in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

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Visit Korea’s coolest surfer town, Yangyang

A lone surfboard sits on the sand at Yangyang’s Jukdo Beach (양양 죽도해변) in South Korea. SCREAMfmLondon

When my friends and I rolled into Yangyang around 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, the cool sea air was almost as shocking to our city-girl systems as the dark and deserted streets. We stepped off our bus from Seoul and searched for our guesthouse among the storefronts — all closed for the night.

I guess we won’t be getting any dinner tonight, I thought.

“It is only nine, right?” we double-checked our phones for the time.

Yangyang’s streets are lined with surfboards and trafficked by bicyclists and skateboarders. SCREAMfmLondon

We finally located our guesthouse, but there were no signs of life there either.

“Hello?” we called. “Is anybody there?”

Rounding the corner, we spotted two employees. One was sound asleep, reclined in a massage chair. The other was lying beside him on the couch, sleeping with a magazine over his face.

“Hiiiiii,” we tried again. Magazine Guy stirred and began smacking Massage Chair guy to wake up and help us.

So, Yangyang seems pretty chill, I concluded as he drowsily checked us into our room.

Surf shops and guesthouses as far as the eye can see. SCREAMfmLondon

Surfers enjoy the clear water in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

The convenience stores were still open, though, so we bought some beers to enjoy at the wooden tables near the beach. We sat and talked for a few hours before something strange happened.

People started rolling by on skateboards and bikes. The taco stand next door flipped on its lights and opened its doors. A loud group of friends sat down outside of the bar down the road.

I finally understood. Yangyang wasn’t dead — it was just having its siesta before the late-night party started.

Cold but refreshing. SCREAMfmLondon

One of many surf schools in Yangyang that offer rentals, lessons and repairs. SCREAMfmLondon

The next morning, Yangyang was even more exciting. There are more than 20 surf shops in the small area offering rentals and lessons, and the beach was full of instructors teaching their students the proper techniques.

Everyone enthusiastically spoke about the waves in Yangyang — perfect for surfing, they said. The water is cold but not unbearable, and the beach popular but not too crowded.

Beautiful, clear water in Yangyang, South Korea. SCREAMfmLondon

The primary modes of transportation for Yangyang residents: surfboards and skateboards. SCREAMfmLondon

Yangyang is such a cool, fully-developed surfer town, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been like this. Surfing is not something typically associated with South Korea, and the sport has been gaining popularity only in the past few years.

What’s a surf town without a burger shack? SCREAMfmLondon

Bikini Burger in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

Busan’s Haeundae Beach is famously crowded in the warmer months, and there aren’t many surfable waves along the Korean coastlines. Yangyang is a hidden treasure for surf enthusiasts in South Korea.

Surfers enjoy riding the waves in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

All streets lead to the ocean. SCREAMfmLondon

Jukdo Beach in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

Aloha from Surfrise, a popular surf shop in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

Yangyang residents are often dressed in wet suits or casual, beach clothes (ponchos, board shorts, etc.). Many of them even sport long hair and tattoos.

A man rinses off his board after surfing in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

A chill coffee shop in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

Walking around Yangyang, it’s easy to forget that you’re not actually in Southern California. Until you see the little old ladies hanging up their laundry, or taste the fresh kimchi (delicious!).

Hikers enjoy the view from the mountain beside Jukdo Beach. SCREAMfmLondon

Lush plants growing everywhere in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

A trail beside Jukdo Beach leads up a mountain where we found gorgeous plants, a spectacular view of the city, and a breathtaking Buddhist temple.

A Buddhist temple in Yangyang. SCREAMfmLondon

Buddha overlooking the water. SCREAMfmLondon

The view from above Jukdo Beach. SCREAMfmLondon

Sorry, Seoul. We love Yangyang now. SCREAMfmLondon

Book review: ‘Nothing to Envy | Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

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Photo courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Mi-ran and Jun-sang had known each other for 13 years and dated for nine. After three years, they began to cautiously hold hands under the cover of darkness once they’d walked a safe enough distance out of town. After six years, Jun-sang mustered up the courage to give Mi-ran an awkward kiss on the cheek, which she quickly rebuffed out of fear and shock.

When Mi-ran escaped with her family to South Korea, she couldn’t risk saying goodbye to Jun-sang. When he showed up one morning to find her family missing, he realized he’d been too late — too late to share with her the capitalist books he’d secretly been reading at university, the South Korean television signals he could faintly pick up at home and his hidden dream of running away with her to Seoul. She was already gone.

The two young lovers are the heart of Barbara Demick’s book, ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,’ which profiles six North Korean defectors hailing from an industrial town in the northeastern part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

‘Nothing to Envy’ is an enthralling read — a kind of novelization that follows its subjects through a fifteen-year period. From the death of Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine of the 1990s, ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows North Korea from the perspective of average citizens, far away from the carefully-constructed capital city Pyongyang and the state’s propaganda-filled press releases.

The book provides a quick but excellent background on how North Korea came to be what it is today. One of the book’s most memorable stories is the biography of Mi-ran’s father, which serves to explain her family’s low social status and “tainted blood.” A once popular and confident young man from a Southern farming area, Tae-woo was taken as a prisoner of war by the North and essentially trapped on the opposite side of the peninsula when a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the drawing of an arbitrary border across the map along the 38th parallel.

“Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were ‘shrimp among whales,’ crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers,” Demick writes.

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South Korea on the left and North Korea on the right, as seen from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

‘Nothing to Envy’ follows its subjects as Kim Il-sung takes control of the DPRK with promises of an idyllic Communist state and, for the first few years, delivers on them. Then, readers see these people struggle to keep the faith after Kim Jong-il rises to power and the country’s economic crisis begins, resulting in the famine that ultimately killed around 3.5 million North Koreans.

Eventually, each of the subjects experiences a life-altering moment of final disillusionment which leads them to leave their country and, often, many loved ones, established careers and educations behind. For Jun-sang, the epiphany finally came when he was able to configure his television to pick up South Korean signals that told him news of the world and, for the first time, honest coverage of North Korea.

“Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick writes. “North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.”

However, the defectors’ difficulties don’t end once they reach Seoul. The initial euphoria they experience often is short-lived, as they have to struggle to acclimate to modern society and start their lives over from scratch. Work experience and university degrees from the DPRK are useless, so the North Korean doctors and intellectuals we’ve gotten to know over the course of the book find themselves taking jobs as nannies and fast food delivery drivers.

‘Nothing to Envy’ concludes with an epilogue bringing the reader up-to-date with North Korea, briefly examining the first years of Kim Jong-un’s reign as Supreme Leader.

It’s an amazingly moving book, and it paints such a vivid picture of life inside North Korea for the past few decades. Not only is ‘Nothing to Envy’ a good primer on the Korean War and the politics surrounding it, but the personal stories within are so poignant they will stay with you long after reading.

The book’s conclusion is realistic and, therefore, inconclusive. The totalitarian regime in North Korea has already endured longer than anyone expected and continues to this day. Although many North Koreans manage to escape, so many are still living lives not unlike those depicted in the book — some are better off and some worse. And their stories are going untold.

‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’
Barbara Demick
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Politics
Pages: 336
Grade: A

Click here to read about my visit to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Scenes from Busan: Jagalchi Fish Market and more

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Busan’s famous Gamcheon Culture Village. Houses built on windy roadways on the foothills of a coastal mountain make this spot a must-see for tourists to South Korea’s second-largest city. The alleys are uniquely decorated with murals, sculptures and vibrant colors. SCREAMfmLondon

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Jagalchi is Korea’s largest seafood market. Vendors sell all types of fresh seafood throughout the market’s meandering corridors. SCREAMfmLondon

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Vendors at Jagalchi Market offer everything from live turtles and eels to dried fish and seaweed. SCREAMfmLondon

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Small restaurants found inside Jagalchi Market serve freshly-prepared fish dishes. SCREAMfmLondon

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Busan Gamcheon Culture Village at dusk. SCREAMfmLondon

RPDR’s Kim Chi slays Seoul debut at SKRT in Itaewon

“One day, I would love to be able to perform in South Korea and actually have people come out to see me.”

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Kim Chi performs at SKRT in Itaewon, Seoul on Sept. 24. SCREAMfmLondon

About an hour before doors opened at the Itaewon nightclub SKRT for Mad Bambi’s third drag ball in Seoul, the line already stretched down the block and around the corner. By 11 p.m., the line had grown beyond the fire station at the nearby intersection, down the street and out of sight. Forty-five minutes after the doors opened, tickets were sold out.

Seoulites walking past would stop and stare at the huge crowd. “What is the line for?” they would ask.

“We’re waiting for Kim Chi,” we’d respond. They would continue to stare.

“All these people are waiting in line for some kimchi?”

“No, this person on the poster is Kim Chi, a man who dresses as a woman.”

“…That’s a man?”

The attraction of the evening was, of course, Kim Chi — an anime-inspired, conceptual drag queen and runner-up on season eight of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Born in the USA but raised in South Korea, Kim Chi has a special place in the hearts of Korean fans who turned up en masse to support her debut on the Seoul drag scene.

I’ve never been to such a crowded drag show. I missed half the voguing waiting in line out front, and strained to see over the crowd during the opening performances of local queens Nikki Ashes, Charlotte Goodenough and Cha Cha.

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Kim Chi performs for fans at SKRT in Itaewon, Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

Finally, Kim Chi arrived onstage to the Dixie Chicks’ “Sin Wagon,” twirling her red skirt and tipping a wide-brimmed hat. Kim is a queen known for her incredible looks and makeup talent, so it was a thrill to see her work up close as we all sweated and danced together to the DJ’s tunes that ranged from Lady Gaga and Beyoncé to their K-pop equivalents HyunA and CL.

Kim Chi spoke to the audience in both English and Korean, expressing her joy and gratitude for the warm reception. During her set, Kim performed English and Korean lipsyncs, as well as her RPDR trademark song, “Fat, Fem & Asian,” which is a tongue-in-cheek response to the marginalization of anyone fat, femme or Asian in the gay community.

It was very exciting to see Kim Chi’s triumphant return to Seoul after her rise to stardom on RPDR. It was exciting to see such an excellent turnout despite South Korea’s less-than-accepting stance on homosexuality.

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Seoul’s gay pride parade this June. SCREAMfmLondon

At the annual gay pride parade in Seoul every summer, religious protesters surround the event, preach over loudspeakers and occasionally try to put a stop to the Pride events. In previous years, Christian groups have laid down in the street to stop the parade and, last year, attempted to prevent the event from even receiving its permits from the city.

But the Korean LGBT community carries on, with role models like Kim Chi paving the way. Her drag is captivating and cutting-edge, and she never shies away from her Korean heritage. On “Drag Race,” Kim Chi stood out from previous Asian contestants for not simply joking about racial stereotypes but instead embracing her Korean roots and using that connection to her full advantage. One standout moment came when Kim appeared on the main stage in a beautiful traditional hanbok as a tribute to her mother.

Kim Chi’s sold-out performance at SKRT is hopefully a sign of more good things to come.

Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery

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Trees in full bloom at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Every year, people wait for the perfect few days in April to head out to the best parks in Seoul for viewing blooming cherry trees. Yeouido and Jinhae are particularly popular spots for cherry blossom picnics and photoshoots, but Seoul National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong offers a less crowded, more peaceful alternative.

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Cherry blossoms signal the coming of spring weather in Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

Seoul National Cemetery is known for its weeping cherry trees, which have flower-covered branches that hang low and swing in the wind. The elegant weeping cherry tree branches fit the tranquil mood of the cemetery.

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

The cemetery is reserved for Korean veterans, including those of the Korean independence movement, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Several former Korean presidents are also buried there. In addition to the cherry trees, there are photo exhibits and memorial monuments to appreciate.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Although viewing cherry blossoms is so popular in modern-day South Korea, the country’s relationship with the national flower of Japan is actually kind of complicated. Because Yoshino cherry trees were planted on Korean palace grounds during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the continued cherry blossom festivals have been controversial. Some Koreans view the trees as symbols of the occupation, and many trees have been chopped down as a political statement.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Regardless of the contentious history of cherry blossoms in Korea, the beautiful and short-lived blossoms still attract huge crowds during the first few weeks of April. This weekend, the weather was warm, but the skies were gray — not with fog but with awful air pollution. Such is spring in 2016.

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Spring! SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Food: Bingsu in the wintertime

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It’s too adorable! Patbingsu with red beans, rice cakes and little macaron ears. SCREAMfmLondon

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Sulbing is my favorite dessert café. This is mango cheese (mango, cheesecake, almonds, sherbet and shaved ice) and real chocolate (cocoa powder, whipped cream, chocolate flakes, brownie bites and shaved ice). Incredibly delicious. Who cares if it’s -5 degrees out? SCREAMfmLondon

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Thank God Caffè Bene provides reading lamps to create the most dramatic bingsu portraits of all time. This is shaved ice covered in cotton candy covered in pop rocks (my childhood dream!). Unfortunately, everything I’ve ever tried at Caffè Bene has been terrible, including this. Tasteless and disappointing. SCREAMfmLondon

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Another cheese berry bingsu. This one has a little smile! Caffé Tiamo always delivers. SCREAMfmLondon