Sunday, November 14, 2021

Ladies' Birthday Retreat in Gangwon-do

This past weekend was really special, as I had the chance to get away with some girl friends of mine from church and celebrate several of our birthdays in a region of South Korea called Gangwon-do (강원도). We stayed at Pure Water Resort (맑은물리조트), and we had such a wonderful time together!

Before I jump into the vacation portion of the weekend, I wanted to take a moment and share a little bit about the day before the trip began: November 11, or Veterans Day in the United States. I took the time to remember my late father, who served in the U.S. Air Force, and to explore the War Memorial of Korea (전쟁기념관) just a short walk from Yongsan Base. The museum was huge, and all the permanent exhibitions were accessible free of charge. A few stories really stuck with me. One account from a Turkish soldier who fought in the Korean War as part of the UN forces who came to South Korea's aid after North Korea's invasion described how a little Korean girl orphaned by the war touched his heart during his service. Decades later, that Turkish soldier and Korean girl - by then an old man and a grown woman with a family of her own - shared a tearful reunion. The veteran said he still prays for that girl and her family every day. My heart was so moved by that and so many of the other stories in the museum. I highly recommend a visit there to anyone visiting Seoul.

The next morning, I met up with my friend A and her friend J to catch a bus to Inje (인제) and from there we rented a car to get to our accommodations (commonly called a "pension" in Korea). Inje was full of unexpected surprises that I won't be able to get into on the blog, but make sure you do your research about various local businesses in advance before you patronize them. I'll leave it at that. We did have some scrumptious and decadent jokbal (족발, pig's foot) at a local restaurant and were lucky to get the last portions left. (We know we did because the next customer who came in without ordering in advance was turned away due to a lack of food!) The restaurant owner was so nice and even gave us free rice and samples of persimmon she'd dried herself to eat. We returned to our pension full and happy.

Late that night, our friends B and H joined the party (not that I was awake for their arrival) and our vacation was in full swing. The next day, a few of us went for a morning walk in the crisp fall air by the river next to our pension and enjoyed the sound of the rushing water, the view of falling leaves, and the glow of a freshly risen sun. When we got back inside, our other friends had already made breakfast! We ate our fill and then helped with the dishes so we weren't just a bunch of freeloaders.

After that, we decided to spend the day at a birch tree grove (인제 자작나무숲) and it did not disappoint. I can't remember the last time I saw birch trees, and their brilliant white trunks silhouetted against the sun made for an unforgettable view. We did the moderate hiking path, and I'm so glad we did because I needed a few breaks. I couldn't imagine doing the hardest difficulty path instead - that might've taken me all day.

We spent hours just hiking through the forest and taking photos together. Thankfully my friend B had the foresight to carry a great selection of hiking snacks which we munched on liberally: cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, mixed nuts, and dried fruit. I really appreciated that fuel, and by the time we were done with our hike I was ready for a nap. We got back to our pension and I crashed immediately, waking only when it was time for dinner.

H and B had picked up groceries and we did a home-style barbecue with beef, mushrooms, banchan (반찬, Korean side dishes) including radish kimchi, garlic, rice, sliced cucumber, and wraps of lettuce and perilla leaves (the perilla leaves are my favorite wrap by far). It was delicious and we all ate until we were stuffed (in Korean we say "배불러": bae bulleo). We even had some sparkling apple ciders to mark the occasion; after all, we were technically celebrating three of our birthdays on this trip!

Once we finished our meal, different subsets of our group played several very different games: Go-Stop (this was the traditional card game they showed in the movie Minari), Sequence, and Cards Against Humanity. By the time we finished playing, I had lost track of time and it was after midnight. Generally being an early bird, I turned in right away once I saw the time. Thankfully, I got to sleep in a bit the next day before it was time for breakfast again. We had Spam fried rice, French toast with butter and syrup, yogurt, blueberries, mixed nuts, and scrambled eggs with potatoes, onions, and peppers. I'm normally not a big breakfast eater but I wouldn't mind eating like that more often.

After we did the dishes, cleaned up, and repacked our bags, it was time to hit the road. We stopped by a river market with an eclectic array of artisans selling handmade and craft goods, local food products like honey and mulberry juice, and more. My friends bought a few items and we all grabbed an herbal tea or hot chocolate before we left. We made it back to Seoul from Gangwon-do in good time, but I'm sure it partially felt that way because we had such great company and conversation in the car.

I'm so grateful I found these amazing friends of mine in Korea, especially while I haven't been able to attend church in person during the pandemic. Especially when you move as frequently as we do, the people around you usually make or break a whole experience. I feel so lucky to have been accepted by these inspiring, strong, hilarious ladies and look forward to sharing more adventures with them in the time I have left in Korea.

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