Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: South Korea

Cary’s update from Nepal and South Korea!

Cary is in China now as you read this, and I am in Manitou Springs, Colorado! Both our last two weeks have been eventful, but I dare say that hers were more interesting. On the eve of her departure to Chengdu, we WhatsApp video called from our respective locations around the world…me with Martha, and Cary with Shawo Choeten, whom she was visiting in South Korea. (Cary and Shawo were wearing masks because Cary had a cold.)

Here is a little news from Cary…

I spent a very focused week at the Shechen Guest House in Boudhanath doing kora and studying Tibetan. Very focused! I visited Pasang Lama and his lovely family and gave them a gift from Mom. We’ve known them since the girls were toddlers and now they are very smart middle-schoolers.

Happy to have finally arrived at the Seoul airport!

Because of a flight cancellation, getting to Seoul from Kathmandu was as grueling as the week in Boudha was relaxing and restorative. What would have been simple turned into a 2 1/2 day ordeal, 3 flights, changing airports in Chengdu, and an overnight on a bench in the Beijing Airport for 9 hours. My immune system, great in Nepal, wasn’t up to the stress of hopscotching across China, and I caught a cold.

But that didn’t stop me from enjoying my visit with Shawo Choeten, whom I’ve known since his first days at the TCV School in Suja, back in 2008. Shawo just received his Masters from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, and is now taking a gap year before continuing on to get his Ph.D.

Besides working on a paper that he will be presenting at a conference in Oxford, England, this summer, Shawo also teaches Tibetan online to Korean students.

We have spent hours conversing about life, culture, language, and society and also enjoying many tea houses, coffee shops,, and restaurants along the way.

I’ll be coming back through Seoul, again, after my month in Chengdu. I have no idea what the internet situation will be with Wifi access and blocked websites. I’ll let you know in January! Sending love to all of you!



Shawo, our good friend and willing guide, showed us the University where he is completing his studies. Sungkyunkwan University was founded in 1398, and is the oldest university in East Asia. Sungkyunkwan means “make harmonious institute” in Korean. It was founded in the 14th century, and think how relevant its name still is today!

We visited Shawo’s flat at the University and toured the University grounds, a combination of contemporary buildings and historic ones. Lucky for us that the historic buildings were open on this day. And the gingko trees were especially spectacular in their fall color.

Click on photos to enlarge.

On our way to the University from Insadong, we walked through the Changdeokgung Palace. The grounds are famous for their beautiful gardens integrated into the landscape, and it was a royal residence until recently. It was so extensive we had to pay two entrance fees to get through the entire area. The architecture was grand, stocky and ornate.

Other vast palaces we visited were the Gyeongbokgung Palace where we arrived too late to enter. It was interesting to notice how much space in the center of modern Seoul was dedicated to the ancient culture. Notice Bugaksan Mountain rising in the distance.

Adjacent to Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the largest boulevards in the heart of Seoul, where democracy expresses itself with many protests on the wide plaza. There are large statues of important historic figures, one of them King Sejong, who created the Korean Hangul script in 1443. Hangul only became the main script after Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Notice how King Sejong is flanked by the iconic Mt. Bugaksan and a massive high-tech digital display. How about that for contrasts…nature, ancient history and digital prowess.

One photo that got away from us showed an archeological dig that revealed the floor plan of a old village, centuries before the modern city arose. It was uncovered while excavating to build the skyscaper next to it. You can look down through glass panels and see the remnants of the village.

On our way to a coffee shop one morning, we enjoyed a walk through the Jogyesa Buddhist temple grounds. This temple was an important bastion of Korean Buddhism during the Japanese colonial period. It was Sunday, and many of the congregation were chanting outside. Very colorful with all the flowers!


Here are a few more scenes of our wanderings in Seoul.


This time, we decided to eschew the labyrinthian 1 1/2 hour subway ride to Incheon Airport and take a taxi. We were wowed by its design and amenities. The restroom in the round near our gate was by far the most impressive! We enjoyed one last latte with Shawo, and the last of the red bean jellies! We don’t know where our next visit with Shawo will take place, but we are looking forward to it!

I guess by now you recognize the approach to Kathmandu. Nepal, here we come!

Kudos to my wonderful daughter, Cary, who is the technician behind the posting of these blogs!


Here is the third post of our visit to Seoul from Nov. 4 – Nov. 11.

There is nothing more colorful or appetizing than a South Korean restaurant with eager eaters hovering over gigantic spreads of numerous varieties of beautifully prepared vegetables and meats, rice, and noodles… only to sit down and find after the first bite that I have burned out my palate for the meal. Since each day is a new day, and hope springs eternal, I walked into each fresh situation convinced that surely somebody would understand the phrase “Please no spicy!” After all, there are, according to TripAdvisor, 23,616 restaurants in Seoul! The Koreans love to eat!

My entire experience was reminiscent of my first trip to India in 1986, when I was so worn out from fighting spicy food that a waiter in Delhi, seeing my plight, served me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It saved my life. As much as I loved India and as much as I enjoyed South Korea, I may have to look elsewhere if I am to survive.

There is something about Korean chefs that cannot resist a tiny bit of hot spice in the dish as their signature trademark. Shawo did a yeoman job of trying to find a prepared salad that would be suitable for me and even when he went to the western-style Paris Baguette bakery and bought a green salad, tucked in the corner underneath the lettuce leaves were those hot green peppers. Dang, foiled again!

We tried a vegan restaurant where we sat on the floor, with, alas, too much spice for me. We thought Vietnamese Pho would be safe but those hot green peppers had been sliced into the soup, impossible to avoid. Eventually, one evening, Cary and Shawo slipped away for a delicious seafood pancake, notice the ubiquitous kimchi, while I stayed at the hotel catching up on writing, and finishing off safe leftover noodles. Thank God for oranges, grapes, and those wonderful in-season persimmons I fell in love with.

Shawo saved me with the breakfasts he brought to our picnic table outside the hotel, which included omelets, fruit, and gimbap (kimbap), all without spice, to get me started in the morning. Gimbap was a wonderful discovery…very similar to sushi and a real treat! Once only made by hand at home, now it’s a low-cost, convenient take-out food. It fills the niche in Korean eating similar to sandwiches in the US. It is portable, tasty, and a great picnic and snack food. Gimbap doesn’t have the raw fish of Japanese sushi and there are hundreds of varieties. Bring it on!

One evening, Jieun, who had given us the red bean jelly gift, was our guide to a massive covered street food market. The variety was mindboggling. I had never seen anything like it in all my travels. The hall with dozens of densely packed food stalls was immense and crowded, filled with small eating stands with narrow benches.

Click on the photos to enlarge.

There were lots of stands specifically for seafood. Cary had been hankering for some Korean seafood, but once she saw the tanks full of little baby octopus, she couldn’t bear to eat them. We missed that photo, but you can see large octopus, sea squirt, cockles, eels and flounder in the photos below, often served raw on large lettuce leaves.

The food variety ranged from vegetables to caterpillar larvae and everything in between. Outside the hall, we ended our culinary journey with a sweet treat made of waffle batter encased red bean jelly and a walnut! Really delicious and, to us, very exotic, just like most everything else we had experienced that evening!

Finally, two days before we left, we found a really neat and airy western restaurant in the Bokcheon-dong district, that was named of all things, The Restaurant. It was actually better than most restaurants I’ve experienced in the US. We had superb pesto pasta, lasagna, and the best mushroom soup I’ve ever tasted.

Unfortunately I poked the top crust before we took the picture, just to see if there was really something underneath. It was so good, we came back the next day. Shawo was agog with his aglio e olio pasta, Cary had roasted veggies with balsamic drizzle, and I had an avocado/veggie sandwich with green salad and french fries. Shawo greatly enjoyed the crusty rolls and butter, not typical of Korean food, but which were like Amdo bread, the region in Tibet where he grew up.

As a celebration for finding food I could finally eat, I treated myself to something I had never experienced: a glass of Bulgarian white wine. I was elated! It didn’t matter that it couldn’t compare to the vino verde from Portugal.

A little aside: The Restaurant had by far the most high tech restroom we had encountered. When you opened the stall door, the lid rose up to greet you. Watch for the youtube video when I have better wifi. Like many Korean toilets, the seat was warm and toasty, but you needed prior training to manage the bells and whistles built into the toilet operation. I was afraid to touch anything for fear I’d end up taking an unexpected shower.


We did have a wonderful meal of galbitang (beef rib soup), and mandu (dumplings), which we enjoyed the last evening with some of the traditional distilled Korean soju to celebrate our week-long stay in Seoul. You can see that we kept forgetting to take photos of the meal before we consumed it! Upon returning to our hotel, we ended a perfect day with another of Jieun’s red bean jelly bars.

The final unexpected and unusual goodie that Shawo gave us was a tasty powdered Korean tea made from Job’s Tears and nuts. He gave us enough for an army, so come over for a cuppa when we get home!

Now that we have shared our food adventures, our final Korean blog post will be an informal architectural tour of our wanderings in Seoul.


I am writing this from Nepal, where Cary and I are enjoying the peace and quiet of the Prakriti Organic Farm Resort in the foothills of the Himalayas in Shivapuri National Park.

Who would have thought that I would have to go to South Korea to get a pair of reading and distance glasses? For three years I have been unsuccessful with any of my doctors in the U.S., but found an optometrist in Seoul, thanks to San Yi, a student of Dza Kilung Rinpoche, who is also Cary’s Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

Geun Oh Song, the owner of the glasses shop, found the secret to my problem. It was a hoot to read the letters in both English and Korean, and gave us a great many laughs, but we couldn’t have navigated it all without the excellent translating of San. The price of the examination, and two pairs of glasses and frames, was $150 and the next day I was given another pair by San’s mother Hyejo Gong, who had come with us to the store. This was a most unexpected, and very much appreciated gift! Koreans are known for their generosity!

If you are in Seoul, and need a pair of glasses, you can find them at Yonsei Glasses, 4th floor, Tong-il building, 77, Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul.

Cary and I, San, Hyejo and Yujin Seong, also students of Rinpoche, spent a delightful afternoon together. They treated us to an excellent restaurant with a banquet of traditional Korean food, none of which, alas, I could eat, but which Cary greatly enjoyed. (More on my food adventures with spicy Korean food in my next post…) Afterwards, we had delicious traditional Korean herbal tea in a tea shop snuggled in a magical little forest in the densely built up Insadong district.

San, MP, Hyejo, Yujin, Cary

It was wonderful for Cary to spend this time with San, as well as her mother and Yujin, all of whom organize Kilung Rinpoche’s Korean sangha, and help fundraise for the Kilung Shedra in Dzachuka, Tibet. Cary and San also work together on dharma texts.

We made other new friends during our visit. In our previous post, we mentioned Lhamo Owser, Shawo’s friend, who met us at the airport. We had dinner at a Mongolian restaurant for some not-too-spicy, but definitely hearty and heavy Mongolian food. Lhamo and Cary had fun interspersing English with Dutch as Lhamo is fluent in Dutch from her years of living there. She currently is taking a gap year and working in Korean restaurants to earn money to travel. We hope our paths cross again!

Yokan is a Japanese sweet made of red bean jelly that the Koreans love. It is exquisitely packaged in special boxes wrapped in fabric. In Insadong there are stores that sell these artistic boxes, elegantly displayed. One of Shawo’s Korean friends, Jieun Yi, gifted us with one of these boxes filled with 6 little packages of red bean jelly of different flavors while we had tea at the same Korean herbal tea shop we visited with San. It was so special at night that we wanted to revisit it during the day.

Offering these red bean sweets, opening the fancy wrapping and carefully slicing the jelly treats to share, is a special Korean tradition we were delighted to experience.


After our tea party and red bean treats, Jieun was our tour guide to a big street food market, and that brings us to more about food, which is the subject of our next blog post!


The first stop on our 7-week journey was a week in Seoul to visit Shawo Choeten, our long-time friend since his days at the TCV Suju school in India. It was hard to believe that it had been four years since we last visited him in Gyeongju, South Korea, where he was studying at Dongguk University. Now he is finishing his Masters at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

We arrived at the modern Incheon Airport on November 4th to be greeted by Lhamo Owser, a delightful Tibetan friend of Shawo’s, who had moved to Amstelveen, Holland, from India in her teens. Shawo had an important class to attend at the same time as our arrival. Thus began a hour-and-a-half sojourn by multiple subways to the heart of Seoul. We met Shawo at one of the connecting stops. After 24 hours of traveling, it was all I could do to get settled at our hotel, Mini-Hotel Insa, in the heart of the Insadong district, and stay awake through dinner.


Cary and I tried to write a post while in Korea, but were so exhausted from our wanderings through Seoul from morning ‘til night that we decided to wait until we reached the relaxed “atmosphere” of Kathmandu. I know, that sounds like a contradiction, but the simple airport and bustling streets of our favorite city soothed us after a week in spotless, organized, peaceful and QUIET Korea. Korea was so first-world that I often felt as if I had stepped into the future, except that right next to a modern glass building could be nestled an authentic relic from the distant past. Note the Baskin Robbins ice cream store built in traditional architecture!

Click on photo to start slideshow.

Ancient palaces, archaeological digs… pristine subways with white walls and murals. Everything new. Modern shops, and parks whose walkways wound between gingko trees with their falling yellow leaves, and elaborate gardens. And colors? A festival for the eye. A funny contrast, however, is that the women dressed mainly in fashionable black and white garb, whether dresses or pants, so different from the colorful, traditional, glittering and glamorous dresses rented to the tourists for a “selfie” walk around town. While visiting one of the palaces, we met a lovely and accomplished woman from Saudi Arabia, a cost engineer working for Aramco, who was enjoying several hours wearing the Korean traditional dress, and shared with us the advances women are making in her country.

And while I’m talking about contradictions, 99% of the citizenry in the open air of the streets of this expansive city were wearing masks (except for me), only to be removed the minute they entered a crowded restaurant. I thought it was hilarious. Compare this to Nepal, where for six months nobody has been required to wear a mask!

I loved our hotel in the Insadong section. It was reasonable, the owner, Daniel, was a gem, and it even had a picnic table with a huge umbrella out front, which we used every day. Peaceful streets led from our doorstep to every part of this vast city like the spokes of a wheel. It couldn’t be better. Activity started after 10 in the morning and gathered momentum until late at night with stores, restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops going full stop. And lights! Every street seemed ready for a New Year’s celebration, full of happy, laughing pedestrians. But people’s thoughts were also not far from the tragedy that happened on Halloween when 150 young people lost their lives in a crowd crush on one of the small alleys.

Two days into our stay, Daniel moved us to a much larger room with a large table, two huge beds, a kitchen, and a heated floor. We were in heaven! I might add that for the first time in our Asian travels we had access to a washing machine. How cool is that?

I’ve decided not to try to give you a daily rundown of our activities, but to highlight our various adventures. Now, you might not think that getting a cup of coffee is an adventure, but this is a big deal in Seoul. Up until a decade ago there was hardly a coffee shop to be found and now there are several on every block, some right next door to each other. Since no restaurants were open until well after ten AM, we decided to nose around and watch the city come alive. We also found elaborate opportunities to satisfy our craving for delicious Korean coffee.

First stop, a fifth floor coffee shop in an elaborate high-rise with a spectacular view of the city (see panorama above). We tried to have our first breakfast there but the only food was specialty cakes, but the choice of coffee styles would put Starbucks to shame. And probably did! The few of the iconic Starbucks that we saw were rather plain and couldn’t hold a candle to the garden-like cafes with trees growing inside, reached by walking down several steps below the sidewalk into an open-air garden…or the high off-the-ground palatial spaces with gleaming windows and marble floors and a few tables resting on an artistic wooden outdoor veranda. Just a side note on our first breakfast, Cary rustled up a egg salad/jam/coleslaw sandwich at a western style coffee shop… nothing we’d ever seen, but tasty in an unusual way nevertheless.


Part of each day we passed the time roaming the streets and ferreting out special coffee environments, often meeting other tourists for an international cup of java. This has changed my whole attitude toward that simple cup of coffee, which can be the social glue that leads to fruitful conversation brimming with new ideas, or just a peaceful break in the hustle and bustle of life, or a meditative moment at the beginning of the day.

We are sending this blog post from an organic farm resort in the Himalayan foothills above Kathmandu, and will follow with more vignettes of our lovely time in Seoul.



December 28-29, 2018

We arose early on our final day in Gyeongju, eager to visit the famous Bulguksa Temple. A World Heritage site, it is located out of town on the slopes of Mt. Toham, and is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Off we went on a modern bus, which wound through country roads, past numerous resort hotels, hills reminiscent of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and a large lake. What a beautiful place for a vacation…in the summer!

Like most of the places we’ve visited, the temple grounds were reached by a bank of steep stone steps. Once we had climbed up, we walked, leisurely, through a massive park adorned with artistic walls and beautifully sculpted trees. The temple seemed to me a bit sparse in contrast to the lush countryside, but it dated from around 751 AD, a sturdy structure from a simpler time. Walks and lattice work showed where the monks had lived. There are very few monks still in South Korea these days, according to Shawo. He said that atheism is on the rise, except for several Christian groups, mainly the Roman Catholics, known to be aggressive in their proselytizing.

Click on photos for slide show.

You will notice in these next three photos that numerous small lanterns hang on many of the ceilings of the temple. Written on the little cards attached to the lanterns are the names of donors (benefactors) who support the temple. It’s quite colorful and decorative.

I am always entranced by the meticulous carvings throughout Buddhist temples, especially on the roofs and around the windows. Here are a few samples.

And now it was time to retrace our steps and head for the bus for our return to town.

At eight the next morning we boarded the bullet train for Seoul-Incheon airport. Once again, I was blown away by the cleanliness and artistic design of the buildings, especially the airport. I took too many pictures, a sign of gratitude for the beauty and freshness of a country that has moved to First World status in a relatively short time. American subways and buses could take a lesson from South Korea. There is no litter and people are constantly cleaning, whether sidewalks or rolling walkways in airports. The contrast between the dust and dirt of Nepal and India is striking. After my recent mishap on a speed bump in Boudha, I sure loved the even streets and orderly infrastructure.

Don’t ask me how many escalators we negotiated on our pilgrimage through the airport. Cary and Shawo did the heavy lifting, so I was free to video various cultural events and folk dances seen along the way. Here is a sample of our farewell meanderings. And you will be glad to know that I finally got my ice cream cone…at Baskin-Robbins, no less. It was Shawo’s treat.

And now, the long walk to our gate.

I wrote down some interesting statistics about our trip back to Seattle. We traveled 8 hours and 35 minutes at 780 mph. Korea is 17 hours behind us, but with a tail wind, we arrived shortly after 8 AM Seattle time…before we had even left…according to the calendar. Boggles the mind!

We were full of mixed feelings as the plane ascended and we prepared for the long night ahead. Our minds were swirling with images of happy people, holiday celebrations, unique restaurants, temples and monuments, long meandering walks through pristine parks, and, most of all, the renewed connection with our dear friend, Shawo. There was sadness at leaving, but also excitement at the promise of future trips to whatever Asian country his career led him. The connection would not be broken.


December 27, 2018

For the next two whirlwind days we hit as many historical sites as our energy—and the cold—allowed.

We were eager to visit the famous burial mounds of Gyeongju and explore the extensive tomb complex that included the Royal Tomb of King Naemul, the 17th ruler of the Silla Kingdom, from 356-402, and King Michu (262-284), the first king of the Kim clan and the 13th king in the Silla period. There is fabulous jewelry in the Cheonmachong Tomb, including a spectacular gold crown. The grounds were lovely as were the small ponds that graced the them.

Click on photo to see slide show.

Many of the national treasures we visited were built during the reign of Silla Queen Seondeok, 632-647 AD. Next on our excursion through the bitter wintry weather was the Gyeongju National Museum. On our long walk there we passed the Cheomseongdae Observatory.

The Gyeongju National Museum is a marvel! There are three main buildings, each one with its own character. It would be impossible to show you all the photos I took of statues and artifacts, but here are a few to whet your appetite.

Pagodas, often found in famous grottoes like the Seokguram Grotto, fascinated me. Among several I saw was the stunning Dabotap Pagoda, which stood in a vast courtyard of the museum.

The Dabotap Pagoda

Click on photo to see slide show.

Doing all this we really worked up an appetite! Gyeongju has many intriguing restaurants with, for us, unusual forms of service. One of our favorites was a type of buffet where you could pick anything and cook it yourself. However, there was a rule that if you took the food and didn’t eat it there would be a charge.

I finally found what I thought was going to be ice cream, only to discover that it was snow with two scoops of green tea ice cream, a little chocolate sauce dribbled on it, and a couple of chunks of chocolate at the bottom. Cary and Shawo loved it, but it tasted to me like a chunk of new-fallen snow! You can see that Cary and Shawo made quick work of it.

The last meal of our stay was at an Italian-Korean restaurant where we delighted in a veggie meal of arugula and mushroom salad, a cheese and cashew pizza, and another pizza, this time with more arugula. We were so hungry for veggies after our meat-filled cuisine.

Our days were filled with discussions about international politics, social structure, and the Korean society as Shawo was experiencing it. I hesitate to make generalizations after such a short time, but here are some observations, nonetheless.

Of course, the Korean family is front and center of a rather structured social system. There are what we call lots of “shoulds” and “oughts” in the society. Expectations are high and pressure on the children to succeed and make the family proud is also very high. It all sounds oppressive to me. So much has to do with status. In fact, many families will fund their children after college until they get the “right” job with the right amount of prestige and income.

As I mentioned, previously, the extent to which the younger women pay attention to their appearance and fashion is quite evident. They use many whitening products for their skin and their make-up is exquisite. It’s almost as if they are walking manikins. It must take hours of preparation each day! I was also told that plastic surgery is prevalent throughout the country.

Observing all this, I realized what a happy go-lucky life I had had growing up, although, like so many people, the pressure we put on ourselves can be just as bad as that forced on us from without. So in the long run, it’s best not to judge.

In the evenings after dinner, we enjoyed wandering through the brightly-lit streets before going to our comfy room with the warm floors. How we savored these last two nights in this interesting country!


December 26, 2018

We headed for Dongguk University, through beautiful parks and burial mounds, and a bustling Christmas Market. And, of course, we had to grab at least one cappuccino for the road! The sun was shining, but I still thought I would freeze. I bet we clocked six miles for the day.

Click on photo to start slideshow.

The university was as impressive as it was extensive. It was rather quiet with all students and professors gone for the winter holiday. Dongguk University was founded in 1906 by Buddhist leaders based on the idea of saving the country through education. The Gyeongju campus was established in 1978 with the “purpose of creating a strong national culture through combining the spiritual with the scientific, cultivating people who are leading Korea unification, supporting the community, and bolstering academic development.” Each year there is a competitive process to select a Tibetan student to be awarded a full scholarship to study at Dongguk. How wonderful that Shawo received the scholarship and has had a chance to learn, grow, and develop in ways not possible at an Indian university.

You’ll note that there is a design garden in front of one of the buildings with what might look to a Westerner likes a swastika. Actually, this is an Aryan symbol, which I first saw in northern India—an ancient religious icon—a sign of peace and divinity, eternity and spirituality. It is geometrical, and when it was preempted by the Nazis as their symbol of world domination, it was written backwards.

That evening was really special for us. Shawo picked up a myriad of ingredients and took us to his apartment for the treat of the week…homemade momos! This is a specialty of Tibet, which has gained popularity in all of Asia. To us they are dumplings.

The evening was spent in lively conversation as Shawo expertly fashioned the small treats, after which he made our favorite veggie noodle soup, thenthuk (pronounced ten-tuk). What was so much fun for all of us was Shawo’s eagerness to learn American slang and all kinds of colorful colloquialisms that you’d never learn in an English class. He made a long list in his notebook and seemed positively gleeful at each new expression. And what was so great was that he used them readily. My language is rather colorful, and Cary admonished me that teaching Shawo “cold as a witches tit” might not be socially acceptable. “Crazy as a loon” was another favorite.

After Shawo’s delicious dinner we grabbed one of those fancy cabs and went through the brightly-lit streets to our guesthouse. As a point of interest I feel compelled to mention that the traffic lights in South Korea are the longest lights on the face of the earth. I surely thought I’d fall asleep before we made it through the fifth one. It was worse than waiting for Verizon to go through the prompts and connect me to an actual human being. This trip has convinced me that I need to work on my patience!


December 24 – 25, 2018

Just for fun I’m starting at the end of our five-week journey to Nepal and Korea in November and December. The luxury of South Korea provided a perfect transition from our more rugged stay in Nepal and the reality of a cold, rain-soaked welcome on Whidbey Island.

We left Kathmandu on Christmas Eve and arrived in Seoul-Incheon airport at 2:30 AM Christmas morning (5:30 AM Korean time). There was Shawo waiting for us. We have known him since he first came across the border from Tibet to India as a teenager, and became a student at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School in Suja. In 2015, Shawo graduated top of the class, a huge accomplishment. He is now in his third year at Dongguk University in Gyeongju, South Korea, on a full scholarship. He is majoring in Global Economics and Korean Literature. Even more impressive, in one year of intensive study he learned Korean well enough to take university level courses!

Together we navigated the pristine modern airport, making our way through a labyrinth of escalators and subways before reaching the bullet train that would take us to Gyeongju.

Our eyes were popping as we entered this First World country and sped on the bullet train for two hours through scenic lands dotted with modern cities surrounded by mountains and farmlands. After arriving at the Singyeongju train station we grabbed a taxi – a fancy Korean sedan.

The driver, an elegant older man, put our address into his GPS, and with no bargaining—our well-honed habit in Nepal—we cruised through clean, paved streets to our guest house. Upon arrival, we nodded farewell to the driver, being told by Shawo that tipping was NOT DONE. For the next four days we discovered that these brand new cabs were easily located on every street and taken with no fuss or aggravation.

Hurray! Heat in our room…and under the floor! A hot shower, bright lights, automatic electric door locks, modern sink and toilet. We had died and gone to heaven! The entrance and hallways were plain cement, but the room made up for it. It’s amazing how comforts that we take for granted are such fun when you’ve been without them for a month. There was a large kitchen near the downstairs entrance, where each person made his or her own breakfast, something I had never seen in my travels. It was a jolly affair with everyone seated at long tables. A variety of food, coffee, stove tops, and sinks were readily available.

One discovery we made when climbing the stairs rather than taking the elevator. There was no fourth floor. It was like the thirteenth floor in many U. S. hotels. It was thought to be unlucky. But we WERE on the fourth floor, even though it was called the fifth. Go figure….

The weather was bitter cold, so we curtailed our walking for the day and grabbed a quick afternoon meal at an excellent Japanese Restaurant. We were slated for a Christmas celebration in the evening at a traditional Korean restaurant, generously hosted by one of Shawo’s friends, Professor Hye Soon Kim, Chair of the Department of Early Childhood Education at Dongguk University. She was a gracious woman and genuinely delighted to welcome Shawo’s friends from the West. Three Tibetan students and one Mongolian student completed the party. Tenzin, getting her Ph,D in Business, celebrated her 29th birthday with a cake and the usual Happy Birthday song. This was the second time I had heard it on our trip. Once on the trek in Nepal and, again, in Korea. I love the way every country sings the same lyrics rather than a translation. What a universal song that is! In her thank you remarks, Tenzin paid Cary a much-deserved and eloquent tribute for her work with TCV students and her support of the program over the years.

Professor Kim, our hostess, is on the far left. Tenzin, whose birthday it was, is third from left.

The meal was typically Korean with a plethora of small dishes coming thick and fast. There are no courses. As I’ve written earlier, eating is almost a spiritual experience for many people in Korea. Soup, unlike in many other cultures, is part of the main course rather than at the beginning or end of the meal. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to take pictures of the spread (we were sitting on pads at a low, rectangular table) and the charming women who served us, dressed in what looked to me like Puritan attire from 1620 Plymouth, MA. Except the bonnets and skirts, which were of a red motif, not black and white. But this was a time to experience, not record. Luckily one of the servers took our photo! A beautiful setting and lively conversation.

For the next three days we took in the sights and sounds of the bustling city and the historic temples and burial mounds. We started at the bank, where we given a ticket and sat on leather sofas waiting our turn, after which we roamed up and down the streets, popping into quaint stationery stores and others that seemed like miniature art galleries. It seemed to me that every establishment had a special artistic quality. Even the coffee shops were designed with a theme, like a swanky cafe or a living room with easy chairs. There seemed to be no rush. Elegance and tranquility was the order of the day.

Gyeongju is a World Heritage Site famous for the tombs of the rulers of the Silla era. These enormous burial mounds can be seen throughout the city, as well as visited. The amazing intricate jewelry and artifacts are part of the proud historical heritage of South Korea. One of the most interesting sights during our walk around town was the massive bronze Silla bell, called the Bell of King Seongdeok, the largest extant bell in South Korea. It was cast in 771 A.D.

Now it’s off to Shawo’s college, as we continue to explore sunny, frosty South Korea.

© 2024 Meg Noble Peterson