Jeju: The Volcanic Island

So it’s been a while since my last post. I’ve been pretty busy with my thesis and stuff lately so I’ve neglected posting anything new here. But I’ve hit a bit of a lull in my work so it seems like a good time to add some content!

I’ve been living in South Korea for almost three years now. It’s pretty crazy when I think back to my time here. It really doesn’t feel like three years, but numbers don’t lie. In my time here I’ve visited a bunch of places, and aside from the south-eastern corner of the peninsula I’ve been all over this country. So, I’ve decided to write a few posts about three of my favourite places to visit, starting with Jeju Island, the largest island in Korea.

As an island south of the mainland, it’s a lot more tropical.

I’ve only been to Jeju once, and that was actually pretty much this time two years ago. I really enjoyed my time there and always planned on going back, but alas I haven’t went back in the time since. Of all the places in Korea though, Jeju is definitely the one place where I actually want to go back to.

After living in Korea for so long, one thing that becomes pretty apparent is that every city is like the same. Seoul is obviously the big city and Busan has the ocean and the beaches, so they’re the most unique. But a lot of the cities just feel.. similar. All the buildings in the cities here are built relatively recently, and probably around the same time too, and they’re all just boring grey buildings. You can go to a completely different city and not even know it sometimes since so many parts of the cities in this country look alike.

This kinda extends to the nature aspects as well. When I first got here I was really amazed at the Korean scenery since it actually looks pretty nice. Lots of rolling mountains, the ocean, and a decent amount of forest cover. But again, the country is quite small so the entire country looks the same. There’s just no variety. Coming from Canada, which is obviously a big country, we have a lot of variety in our landscapes which is something I enjoy. Variety is pretty key, and I think that Jeju is the most visually distinct when it comes to Korea.

Mountains in Jeju are a bit spikier looking.

Being a volcanic island situated south of the mainland, Jeju actually looks and feels different. The air is a bit clearer, the mountains are a bit spikier, and the small villages and towns also have a bit of a different feel to them as well. Pretty neat atmosphere.

Of course, you have to leave the city. Jeju City was pretty boring to me to be honest, since it just reminded me of any other coastal city in Korea. But, the naturey sightseeing spots in Jeju are actually really nice and it’s by far the main reason why you would want to go to the island to begin with. Sure, they also have random stuff like the African Museum of Art, but I’m not really looking to check that stuff out if I visit a volcanic island in Korea though you know?

The main thing in Jeju is Hallasan, the tallest mountain in Korea. It also happens to be a volcano in the center of the island, so it’s hard to miss. There’s hiking trails that go up the mountain, and despite it not being a very difficult hike up, I’m still not sure if it was worth it.

The crater lake at the top of Hallasan.

It took us four and a half hours to go up, and then another three hours coming back down. I’ve done my fair share of Korean hikes but man, that was a long hike.

The actual crater lake at the top was.. disappointing. Plus there were a ton of flies when we went so it was really gross cause they kept flying around. But I do admit the mountain itself is quite scenic and the fact that you could turn around and look over the island at the top was pretty fantastic. On a nice day you can even see the edge of the island, which we were lucky enough to see. There’s something pretty awesome about seeing that far away and actually getting to see where the landmass ends.

Jeju pretty much positions itself as the volcanic alternative to the mainland. The lava tubes is one of the major attractions as well, and definitely pretty neat. It’s not mindblowing, but it was still pretty cool to walk through this cave and check out the lava formations and stuff.

Lava formations, kinda neat.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been in a cave but it was the first time I’ve been to a volcanic cave though, which was cool.

When I went to Jeju I pretty much just hit up a lot of the main touristy areas since that was the easiest way to do it. But now that I’ve been there once I kinda wanna go back and just, explore a bit more. Either by renting a car or even biking around the island. Jeju has a lot of cool stuff that’s heavily featured in tourist resources, but I have a feeling that there’s a lot of random cool stuff to just discover on your own, which is something I want to check out if I ever go back.

Like we also went to Udo as well, which is a small island off the coast of Jeju. So like, the Jeju of Jeju. We ended up taking a bus around the island but you could also rent scooters or whatever, which in retrospect seems like a more fun option. Having the freedom to just explore is pretty nice.

Even the algae is different.

So in conclusion Jeju is nice. It honestly might be my favourite sightseeing area in Korea, so I do recommend it to anyone that enjoys traditional culture and nature. If possible, rent a car or some other form of transportation that gives you a bit more freedom though, I think that’s what I would do. When we were there we ended up covering maybe half of the island, but not fully of course. If I ever go back I’d definitely want to check out the western and southern sides of the island.

Taipei: The Food City

About a month ago I took a few days off from the lab and went to Taiwan. I figured since I was in Korea, I should make the most of it and visit as many Asian countries as I can. Since Taiwan is relatively close (and small), it seemed like a good place to go to for a short break. I also wanted to go because I’ve heard good things about Taiwan, and after living in Korea for so long I needed a break and just get some Chinese food too.

I wanted to write a post about it soon after I got back but I had a lot of work to do for my lab so I never had the time or energy for it.

But, I’m writing one now so it’s ok. My trip was mostly centered around Taipei, but we took a short day trip out to Jiufen and Shifen as well. Despite the title of this post centered around Taipei, I’ll talk about those two places as well because they’re close enough and don’t really deserve a separate blog post (despite being amazing).

Taipei skyline taken from Elephant Mountain.
Taipei skyline taken from Elephant Mountain.

So despite only being in Taiwan for a few days, I had a pretty good time. Taipei was a nice city and honestly seems like a great place to live. It has all the things you’d think of when you think of a big Asian city, but it feels more.. free? than other cities. Aside from the fact that it seems incredibly liberal, like I don’t think I have seen so many openly gay people ever, the population of Taipei is lower than a lot of other cities like Tokyo and Seoul, so it doesn’t feel as crowded and there’s more open space.

I like open space, open space is nice.

The actual city was pretty interesting too. Some parts of it look like they’re straight out of Japan, which I guess makes sense if you consider historical elements, and others look very Chinese, which again, makes sense. There’s a pretty interesting blend of cultures in Taiwan and as a dude that loves Chinese and Japanese food, I honestly felt very at home in Taiwan.

Ximending looks like it could've just been some part of Tokyo.
Ximending looks like it could’ve just been some part of Tokyo.

The food selection in Taipei is fantastic. Taiwan has like, everything. They have a ton of restaurants catering to different types of food, and to me it was especially important that they had so many different types of Chinese food. They even have a lot of street markets with a lot of random street food that is both cheap and delicious. Just walking down the many street markets they have, sampling just some of everything, is an adventure in itself.

Everywhere, from the restaurants to marts, had good food. And I love me some cheap and delicious food. You could eat different food for days, even weeks on end probably, and still have a ton to eat. I wish I had more time just to eat more food really.

But I guess if you weren’t interested in food, then you’d probably go sightsee right? Well, to me, Taipei wasn’t that exciting for sightseeing.

Seeing snakes outside of snake restaurants is pretty cool.
Seeing snakes outside of snake restaurants is pretty cool.

Normally when I travel I like to see and experience things that I can’t find anywhere else. But when I went to Taipei I didn’t really have that feeling. A lot of times when I was walking around and looking at stuff, I kept having feelings of Hong Kong or Japan, and nothing really struck me as “super Taiwanese”, if you know what I mean. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was probably the most unique thing I saw in Taipei, and despite that being really cool by itself, it didn’t really blow me away like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

Taipei 101 is also heralded as one of the big landmarks in Taipei, and I do admit it kinda looks cool, but it’s not that special. I was only in Taipei for a few days so I probably did miss some stuff, but I think I covered the major things when I was there. So in that way, the trip was a bit disappointing. That said, we did a one day trip out of Taipei and that was really awesome and definitely the highlight of my trip.

The atmosphere in Shifen is amazing.
The atmosphere in Shifen is amazing.

The first part of that excursion was to Shifen, a small town that is known for their sky lanterns. A lot of tourists go out to this small place in the middle of essentially nowhere to write their dreams and wishes on lanterns, and then light a fire and see it rise up into the sky. It does sound super touristy, but man, that was a cool place. The whole mix of the sky lanterns being constantly launched into the sky and the people hopping around on a train track was really unreal. It was even cooler when a train did come because people had to like, evacuate the track, which sounds kinda dumb but just adds to the experience.

I really enjoyed that. It was fun to write stuff with my friends, and even more fun to see our lantern fly into the sky. That was cool and I highly recommend it.

Afterwards we went to Jiufen, which is a nearby town that many people say was the inspiration for the town in Spirited Away. Going at night definitely makes the experience a lot nicer, but I think that it wasn’t really that special. Taipei has a lot of night markets already, and the old town in Jiufen just kinda felt like a more traditional looking night market. The “landmark” there, the tea shop, was kinda cool I guess, but I’m not sure if it’s really worth the trip out there.

The Ah Mei Tea House, a very cozy looking building swarmed with tons of tourists.
The Ah Mei Tea House, a very cozy looking building swarmed with tons of tourists.

So overall Taipei was nice, but I think that if you were to visit Taiwan, it might be a better trip if you took some time out of the cities and went to the countryside. That’s what I’ll be doing the next time that’s for sure. I liked Taipei, and I probably wouldn’t mind living there, but aside from a brief respite for food and stuff, it doesn’t seem too exciting from a tourist perspective. Granted maybe I just didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have. Like we went to the National Palace Museum too and I just didn’t get it.

Regardless, would go again, but definitely want to check out some more naturey and traditional spots the next time I go.

Year in Review: 2016

Well, it’s officially 2017.

2016 was one hell of a year. On one hand, it was a pretty good year because I made a lot of progress in my work, and I also had a chance to go on a bunch of trips to new places. But on the other hand, it was probably the most physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful year of my life.

So all in all, it’s been one giant roller coaster of a ride.

2016 started off with some sparklers, tangerines, and chocolate in a Hungarian bar in Korea.
2016 started off with some sparklers, tangerines, and chocolate in a Hungarian bar in Korea.

Let’s talk about the good things first. If you disregard all the negative aspects of the year, 2016 was probably one of the best years of my life. Easily in the top three I think, although it’s hard to rank exactly.  The most obvious highlights of my year were the travels I went on.

In February I went on a trip to Hong Kong, Malaysia (Malacca and Kuala Lumpur), and Singapore which was just a fantastic trip because I had a chance to spend Chinese New Year with my family in Hong Kong and visit a new area, Southeast Asia with my friends. The summer also saw a short trip home back to Canada too, and going home is always great. Finally, I went on my first international “business trip” in October when I went to Dubai for the Global Grad Show.

Having an international trip staggered like that was fantastic. I always had something to look forward to, and each trip was wonderful in its own way. It was especially awesome since that’s three new countries that I have never been to before, in two areas that I also haven’t visited prior to those trips. I definitely had a lot of fun during those trips and also learned a lot.

Some cool people I went to Malaysia with.
Some cool people I went to Malaysia with.

It was a pretty big year for my family too. The big one would obviously be my sister having a kid, meaning that I’m officially an uncle now. The main reason why I went back home in the summer was to meet my new nephew and I’m eagerly waiting for when I can go back home next so I can play with him some more. As additional bonuses, two of my cousins got married this year as well, which is just a merry time.

My parents also came to visit me in Korea twice, and I also had a bunch of friends visit as well. It’s always nice to have visitors. The friends I have in Korea are fantastic, but it’s different to talk to someone from my pre-Korea days. Just, different topics and different feelings you know? Really milks the nostalgia.

Pictured: A non-Canadian dude representing Toronto more than the actual Canadian dude.
Pictured: A non-Canadian dude representing Toronto more than the actual Canadian dude.

This was my first full year at KAIST, which I will definitely talk about later in the post (foreshadowing). Surprisingly my grades went up. My first semester had some (relatively) abysmal grades, but the last two semesters saw a rise in my GPA. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I ditched the dorm and got my own place. Probably not though.

I also had my first conference paper published this year. That said, it’s in a domestic Korean conference that has incredibly low standards so it’s not really an achievement in any way, but it’s still kinda neat. Speaking of conferences, I got brought to another Korean HCI conference earlier in the year and that was a fun little trip too since it was held in a ski resort and casino.

The High1 Ski Resort, a place I definitely went to just for an HCI conference.
The High1 Ski Resort, a place I definitely went to just for an HCI conference.

There were just a lot of really good moments in 2016. Hanging out with friends, playing with new technology, trying new things – there’s just too much to list.

But despite all the good things in 2016, this was also an incredibly terrible year.

Like I’m willing to give it the title of the worst year of my life, which is both really not saying too much cause I haven’t lived that bad of a life, but at the same time is saying a decent amount considering how much fun I had during the year.

A light in the darkness. Korean style.
A light in the darkness. Korean style.

The theme of the year was definitely politics and tragedy. I never really used to pay attention to politics that much, and I never really followed the news. But after coming to Korea and meeting so many people from all around the world, international relations and events have quickly risen to something I actually follow. It’s easy to just block out news when it’s happening somewhere on the other side of the world and not directly affecting you, but when you know people from those areas and see how they’re being affected, it’s hard to ignore.

Like, I have friends who are British or living in the UK who were so confused and upset with the results of the Brexit referendum. During the Turkish coup I had another friend who went back home message me that he heard the jets flying overhead. And obviously everyone on my Facebook, both American and not, was going insane over the American election.

And then we get to all the tragedies. There’s been a lot of death in the news this year. Be it from attacks, accidents, or natural causes. Maybe technology is just keeping us so connected so it just seems like bad things are happening all the time. Or maybe bad things are just happening more often. Regardless, it’s a pretty bad feeling to shake. Especially when there’s so much hate and discrimination thrown around due these.. events. I think the most important thing though, is to stay strong regardless of what happens. Otherwise, the terrorists win.

Korea also had their largest earthquakes in many years, despite not being too big.
Korea also had their largest earthquakes in many years, despite not being too big.

On a bit more on a local level, 2016 was pretty rough for me too. Studies are KAIST are tough. The most ironic part is that the studying aspect is nothing at all, but the lab work and the expectations are definitely taking a toll on me. Spending so much time in the lab working on projects is incredibly tiring, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up in 2017, but thankfully it should only last half a year this year.

It’s also been almost two and a half years since I’ve come to Korea. And considering how most of my friends aren’t from Korea, it also means that the natural ebb and flow of everyone’s lives are slowly tearing our relationships apart. It sounds bad, but I’ve already had some friends leave Korea and the increase of work in our schoolwork is also making it more difficult to see the friends that are still here.

Probably my favourite group picture of 2016, taken at a farewell party.
Probably my favourite group picture of 2016, taken at a farewell party.

But alas, ’tis life.

2017 should be a very interesting year for me. It’s interesting because it’ll be the first time since 2014 (long time right?) where I have no idea what my future holds. Naturally, I never know the future, but you can generally make educated guesses. But this time around, I really don’t know. I know that I’m graduating this year, but that’s about it.

What am I going to do after graduation? Where will I be after graduation? How will I graduate? These are questions I have no answers to. A bit scary really. People ask me these questions all the time, and I ask myself these questions all the time too. But in reality, it’s really not my decision. I want to find a job somewhere making cool things. I’ll be applying to a lot of places all around the world, but the decision to hire me is not mine.

Maybe I’ll go back home to Canada. Maybe I’ll end up staying in Korea. Maybe I’ll go to a third country. Who knows?

I don't normally get homesick but.. I wouldn't mind being home right now.
I don’t normally get homesick but.. I wouldn’t mind being home right now.

I’ll deal with it when I get there I guess. It’ll be nice to go with the flow again.

I just want a nice break after I graduate. I’m planning on going back to Europe for another grad trip. Should be fun, especially since I have a lot of friends scattered all around Europe now. And speaking of travelling, I have a short trip to Taiwan booked for a couple weeks from now too as a quick break from the lab.

I’m hoping that 2017 will be a fantastic year. Not just for me but for everyone. We could use a 2017, not a 2016S.