In January, 2010, I traveled to beautiful South Korea with ten choral conductors and five others on a "Fam" tour. Familiarization tours used to be fairly common for choral directors to test the waters in hopes that they would bring a choral group on the same tour with the promoting company at future time. I remember several people I know going on different Fam tours and I was always jealous of the low price and high levels of adventure they experienced. I almost missed the Korea opportunity because even though it was addressed to me, the invitation was in a pile of junk mail that had several travel advertisements and I was going through them quickly. The price was incredible and the trip itself amazing and unique....HOW could I refuse? It was all-inclusive (lodging, airfare, transportation, and some meals, etc.)
The trip was offered by the wonderful Accolades International Tours for the Arts out of Minnesota.
After a very brief hotel stop, we headed out again to see a rehearsal of the Korean Children's Choir, directed by Mr. Heecheul Kim (pictured above). They were fabulous! Mr. Park is dynamic and their sound was vibrant. That night, we had a welcome dinner with several Korean choral directors at a Korean BBQ restaurant. YUM! It was awesome and I got to try several different kinds of Kimchi. I learned that pots of various marinades of cabbage and other vegetables are buried underground for the duration of the winter to make the kimchi and that there are several hundred varieties of it! For the rest of the tour, I noticed pots in practically every backyard. My favorite kind of kimchi was one that remotely tasted like a bean chili and it was not so vinegar-y.
A big after dinner shock was when everyone needed to head to the restrooms. After being in the nice, warm restaurant, gathered around BBQ over coals and hot soups...the restrooms were located outside a door and in another portion of the building.......that happened to be UNheated. It was ICY cold and I could see my breath. WOW and washing my hands in more icy water was not an experience I want to repeat!
What a terrific first day!! The next day, we had the opportunity to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the 6th Division of the ROK Army, the Peace Center, and the 2nd Infiltration tunnel. I never really thought that I would get to see these highly volatile places so I was extremely glad to be given the chance. I had the interest in seeing/observing the DMZ ever since a friend went in 2007 as part of TOPIK (Toward Peace in Korea). Later in the trip, one of our guides, Laura, told us how hard it was for so many in South Korea to live without knowing if relatives across the border were ok or in some cases, alive. Her grandparents were in North Korea. In my opinion, the whole realization of this border is traumatic and sad. It is an exercise in futility, of pride and of war. Nonetheless, I am glad that I had this chance to observe it. On the way to the DMZ, we drove through the Gangwan province and the area of Cheorwon. It was snowy and full of wildlife between the small villages and towns. I saw several different varieties of endangered cranes. They are beautiful, noble birds and are featured throughout Korean history, myth and lore since before the Silla kingdom. Cheorwon is known for its high crane population and has an annual crane festival. You could say that we were CRANING our necks to see them out of the bus windows :-) Some of the street lamps were even shaped like crane necks! Because the bus windows were frosting over on the inside from condensation, I wasn't able to get any superb pictures along the route, but here is one decent one...
It was clear when we were getting close - air space was also being guarded and no fly zones were marked. We stopped at a place to use the restroom and were watched to & from the bus. I noticed that no one else was around and it was eerily quiet. I'm sure the icy temperatures helped with that, but it was still a little odd. I also suppose there are not many tourists, especially Americans, during the harsh winters. We arrived at the lower level of the Peace Center, Woljeong Station. This location can actually be used as a performance venue.
We took a cable car up the side of the small mountain to the main building of the center. There were tons of deer down below our car and you could see a monorail coming up after us.
Once inside, we could look out a large window onto the landscape of the border between South and North Korea. There, we could see electric fences, guard towers, and a mix of forest and small rolling hills. Funny that the Demilitarization Zone is among the most heavily militarized zones on our planet. The whole DMZ is 155 miles and now considered a wildlife habitat because rare plants and animals have been able to flourish where humans cannot due to the insanity of war. There are listening towers and hidden land mines throughout the countryside. We toured the center and then were escorted to another part of the DMZ area. Here, we were told that we could go directly to see the tunnel and that we were not to take pictures unless directed in certain areas. A tour guide met us and explained how this tunnel was twice as large as the first "Infiltration" tunnel, had three exits, and was about eight miles. The tunnels are thought to have been built to sneak an army of North Koreans into South Korea for invasion. They were masked as "coal mining tunnels". You can only visit this tunnel # 2 as part of a touring group. Initially, it was dark, damp, and COLD in there, but after we began our descent, it warmed up considerably. It was a fascinating tour and an insight into an historical and present situation that I knew very little about. I do not often think about this area of the world or this tenuous "peace" between North and South Korea and how many of us do? The recent death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il in December 2011 and his third son Kim Jong Un becoming successor......has it changed North Korea's direction, outlook, humanitarianism, structure etc.? It brought the country temporarily into the political spotlight light.....just as recent news of North Korea's continuing vows to further strengthen its nuclear arsenal and defense capabilities understandably will keep it there.
The second Infiltration tunnel was very deep and the hardest part was climbing back up the slipery and steep steps. I had a lot of trouble, BUT I made it. They let me take a picture here because it was a triumph that I made it back up. My legs were jelly for the rest of the afternoon!
On the way back to our hotel, we stopped and were able to visit with a family inside their home. For choral tours, the Korean directors work with Accolades to have students staying in homes for a few days while they are on tour. The family was so nice and they had laid out snacks and teas for our group. Later that evening, we had dinner together and were able to meet the reknowned Hak Won Yoon of the Incheon City Chorale. He is a legend! His choirs ROCKED the house at the national ACDA convention in 2009 and he is both a famous teacher and clinician. Here's a YouTube of one of his choir performances of a cool piece called "Eight Laughters":
It was a tiny little restaurant, but we all took turns talking to him and sitting together. He is SO NICE and has a good sense of humor. He also was patient with all of us as we all wanted pictures with him.
After dinner, we got to attend a performance of NANTA, the amazing performing chefs. It was HILARIOUS! I have never seen vegetables chopped so fast!
The next day was full of church visits. This was for possible venues and to also hear choirs in action. The Doore Church was our first stop.It was gigantic and featured services throughout the day. It had a choir of about 150 members. We were seated together and greeted as special guests. After this service, we attend one at the Myungsung Presbyterian Church. The director of music is Mr. Heechul Kim. This church is absolutely enormous and is the largest church in the world. I can believe it! The choir was easily 300 people. The orchestra was easily over 100 members. I heard that they have four other adult choirs, four or five children's choirs of at least 300 each and two more large professional orchestras over 100 each. We sat in special guest areas and were greeted and stood to a welcome of thunderous applause. THE WHOLE CONGREGATION SANG BEAUTIFULLY! I was impressed beyond words.
The last church we visited was the Haeorum Church with music mission pastor Hyungsoo Kim.
We had a tremendous vist with World Vision and heard their children's choir. It was here that I saw an old colleague and fellow singer from the Atlanta Symphony Chorus - Heechurl Kim, who was doing some directing with the World Vision choirs.
They were phenomenal. They presented a video of the World Vision program to us and then we were treated to a choral performance which included native Korean dances.
After this, we had a Seoul city tour and a fancy dinner with members of the Korean Ministry of Tourism and past presidents of Korean ACDA. Now, I must tell you here that I do not like certain foods and any friends reading this may have a chuckle : p but I have tried the foods I disliked....some even several times, in hopes that my tastes would change. This meal was to impress us all. It was SIXTEEN courses.
Yep, trays of delicacies and beautifully-decorated foods were brought out to each section of the long table and we all shared. It was great, but lasted a long, long time and we were all super stuffed afterwards! I tried two kinds of eel. I loved the BBQ eel. Then, I tried squid (dislike), calamari (dislike), and JELLYFISH (bland and like a rice noodle). We also tried the rice wine, Soju, and I found that this was very tasty. Our section of the table enjoyed several small bottles of it....
After dinner and a brisk walk, we attended a fantastic performance by MISO. It was my favorite performance. This group played native Korean and Chinese instruments and we heard several different folk singers. Different members danced symbolic dances while others sang/played. The last portion of the evening was an acrobatics show. I have only seen such things at the circus. The performers were amazing! They had the audience involved and up out of their seats!!! For the next day, we visisted possible performance venues out in the suburbs of Gwachon, Ilsan (in Goyang province), and Bundang. In the afternoon, we left for Daegu and had dinner at the Grand Hotel. Daegu is a gorgeous city and is the fourth largest city in S. Korea. It has ruins of prehistoric pit-houses, agricultural fields, and megalithic burials (dolmens) and was thought to be a walled city. Today, we took a tour of the Daegu Opera House. It has four floors and seats 1,500. It's shaped like a grand piano! Afterwards,we visited the Pilgrim Mission Choir, conducted by Lee Jae-joon. This choir won the Grand Prix in the International Festival of Choirs in 2010. During the break in watching their rehearsal, we were each given the chance to introduce ourselves, tell about our jobs and schools, and to say something about choral music. Then, one of the American conductors, Brady Allred from Utah, worked a piece with them. Afterwards, we had a grand reception and were able to interact with the singers and lots of Korean choral conductors who had come to meet us. It was a marvelous time, but a little overhwelming and humbling that they had come to meet and talk with us!
The next morning, we went to a church on the US Army base and then met with some people at the Daegu Culture and Art Center and the Keimyung Art Center. Both are state of the art theatres which house performances of all kinds for the city, region, and country.
Somewhere on the tour, and I honestly cannot remember which day, we were able to visit a homeopathic type of museum. We saw the history of healing medicines and were able to buy authentic Ginseng teas and candies. It was in a community that had tons of shops, most for a specific item to be ground, used in cooking, or used another way. I've never seen so many dried mushrooms in my life!
After our tours, we movd to the amazing city of Gyeongju, passing the World Cup soccer stadium along the way. An unexpected treat (it was planned, but we just didn't have it on our itinerary :-)also happened on the way: we stopped by the construction of a new performance hall which is set to be completed by 2014 in time for the World Choral Olympics. We were invited to talk with the engineers about how they were constructing it, the acoustic details, and saw a video presentation about this venue for the future. This picture is what they had set out for our visit :-)
The next day was our last day, but it was one of my absolute favorites! We visited the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites and the EXPO center. The first site was an historic center with a wealth of Silla Kingdom history, statues, pagodas, artworks, and more! It also had a gift shop (YAY!) Gyeongju was the "capitol" of the Silla clan and has ruins of ancient temples from the 7th through the 10th century. My favorite artifact was the giant Silla bell.
Our last stop was another UNESCO site - the gorgeous Bulguksa Buddist temple on a small mountain. It was the last light of the day and the temple, adorned with designs, carvings, left-facing Buddhist swastikas, and art, gave us a sense of eternal peace.
Here is the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulguksa
In the freezing 6-degree cold, we explored the grounds and then peeked into the temple. One last look at Korean countryside came with the sunset and is my favorite picture that I took while there.
Our farewell dinner was super delicious and we all sat on floor pillows. It included a Korean cake for me since it was my birthday.That was SO SWEET of the whole group! I had a blast and met some fantastic people. I also recommend Accolades very highly. They were professional, organized, and terrific hosts. They also have THE connections in Korea and worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Tourism. Korea is an amazing country and its people are smart, gracious, and hospitable