March 30, 2013

Ulsan and the Might of Hyundai

The port city of Ulsan hugs the coastline near Busan on the southeast shores of Korea. Hyundai's engineering might is on full display here, with both the world's largest car manufacturing factory and shipbuilding yard located within the city limits. With a population of just over a million well off inhabitants, Ulsan is easily South Korea's richest city based on GDP per capita.

Hyundai is among the handful of chaebols (conglomerates) that unofficially rule South Korea since its transition from a dictatorship to a democracy. Hyundai is involved in manufacturing cars and ships, operating department stores, and undertaking large civil engineering projects. During the Asian economic crisis of 1997, the Hyundai Group was broken up into several smaller, but still huge, chunks. Although separate legal entities now, control remains largely in the hands of a few family members of Hyundai's founding father Chung Ju Yung.

Despite the heavy industry that brings Ulsan its wealth, the the coastal waters have a pleasant hue. At the Daewangam Songnim park the coastline is characterized by jagged cliffs rising steeply from the waters, covered by a sprinkling of pine trees. Old men are precariously perched among various crags, fishing rods in hand. They are there to escape the constant nagging of their wives, and any fish they catch is just a spillover benefit of the carefree time spent away from home.

A Korean friend of mine lives in Ulsan, so I stay over at his place and enjoy a few meals with his family. A hearty breakfast is prepared by his mother, and lunch is at a neighbourhood diner that provides a significant amount of side dishes. At night we devour some pork belly at a Korean barbecue house and explore the university area. The city is famed for its whale meat, but I did not get my hands on any.


"To reach a port, we must sail - sail, not tie at anchor - sail, not drift." - 
Franklin D. Roosevelt 

March 26, 2013

Dome Time

On a large parcel of land in a peninsula situated between Mumbai's Gorai Creek and the Arabian Sea, a gigantic dome rises into the sky. Sunlight shimmers off its golden exterior. I wear a long sleeved shirt to avoid any confusion. In 2009, the Global Vipassana Pagoda opened here. The monument to peace and harmony is not yet complete, with the final touches still being applied during my visit.

South Korea may be well known for its hollow plastic treasures, but the Vipassana Pagoda's claim to fame is that it is the largest hollow stone structure in the world. The largest stone dome without supporting pillars ever constructed, the impressive monument rises to an height of almost 100 meters. The exterior design is based on a Buddhist structure in Myanmar, and the pagoda has an expected lifespan of a thousand years.

The centre offers free ten day courses to everyone, and only asks for complete isolation from the pulls of modern day society during that time span in return. Oddly enough, India's largest amusement park is located adjacent to the meditative retreat. I had to share a crowded ferry with hundreds of families headed towards Essel World before I could experience the relative solitude of the monument.

There was a viewing hall inside the great dome, so we could witness the meditation sessions taking place within. Meditation centres always make me a bit uneasy, as I am never completely sure which of its inhabitants are actually sincere about their beliefs, which ones are faking it, and which ones are crazy.


"White, black, or brown, a man is still a man. Whoever defiles his mind becomes miserable." - inscription found on the wall of the pagoda

March 19, 2013

Ha Long Bay

Several hours east of Hanoi lies Vietnam's most spectacular sight - Ha Long Bay. Thousands of jagged isles spring out of the Gulf of Tonkin, reminiscent of the karst formations I encountered in Guilin but on a much larger scale. A hundred vessel strong fleet of wooden ships ply the waters in the bay, carrying the tourists who make this one of Vietnam's most visited attractions.

As the legend goes, when Vietnam was threatened by invaders the gods sent forth a family of dragons to protect the nation from the foreign armada. The dragons cleared their throat emphatically, spitting out some jewels which turned into the limestone rocks that we see today. The invasion force promptly ran into the newly formed defensive shield and sunk deep into the depths, never to be seen again. The dragons descended into the bay after their work was finished and retired in the area, giving Ha Long Bay its name.

The waters of Ha Long Bay are a healthy shade of turquoise. I enjoy the view from the bow of the ship as we approach a dense cluster of islands. Lunch is provided on board the vessel, and then it docks beside an extremely large and awe-inspiring cave complex. Sung Sot Cave is a geological wonder, full of surprises and stalactites.

Some ships have been constructed to resemble ancient junks, their distinctive battened sails standing tall. In secluded coves that could function as secret hideaways of pirates from days gone by, a few vessels drop anchor. Kayaks are provided for visitors interested in exploring the shoreline of some islets in more detail.

While most of the tourists wander off on their kayaks, I am surrounded by a trio of Vietnamese ladies. Blessed with good taste, they seize the opportunity for an impromptu photo shoot as soon as they get a moment alone with me. They invite me for dinner the following night, but I must politely decline due to my packed travel schedule. I will be en route to Luang Prabang in Laos by then.

March 17, 2013

Girls Day

I was having dinner with a Korean guy I had met while traveling in Wando. As we ate, the large screen TV inside the restaurant was showing the weekly countdown of the latest K-pop hits. When a idol group known as Girls Day started performing their latest single, every male head in the restaurant swivelled towards the screen. The girls were busy fiddling with their smart phones and hand mirrors, so they were blissfully unaware of the happenings around them.

Korean guy: Why you don't have Korean girlfriend?
Me: They are scared of me.
KG: Oh, really? Maybe they fraid to speak to you.
Me: Yes, and the ones that are not afraid don't like my style. Clothes, hair, skin, glasses. They complain about everything.
KG: But you looks like handsome.
Me: I know, but they don't realize it.

At this moment one of the effeminate boy groups was prancing about on the TV screen.

KG: You should dress like that.
Me: Never! I will not wear short tight pants and thick glasses without lenses, put on makeup, carry a large purse, or have the same haircut that everyone else does.
KG: But that is what Korean girls like.
Me: I won't dress like that. Also, they complain about my body hair.
KG: Girls especially hates your arm, chest, and leg hair.
Me: And my back hair.
KG: You have back hair!? You are beast.

March 16, 2013

The Hungry Tide - Sundarbans

The Sundarbans are the largest continuous mangrove network on Earth, covering an area of over 6000 square kilometres. Two centuries ago, it was three times its present size. A combination of human development and natural phenomena have led to its shrinkage, threatening the very existence of the royal Bengal tigers and other wildlife that call these mangroves home. I took a tour of the Sundarbans while visiting with family in Kolkata.

Spread across a delta cutting its way through India and Bangladesh, it opens up to the Bay of Bengal. India's largest tiger reserve and national park can be found here. Dozens of small communities are scattered throughout the region. Boats are the primary form of transportation from one islet to another, through the Sundarbans' many rivers, streams, and vast expanses of open water.

I usually abhor the elementary school nature of organized tours, with their set timetables, unnecessary hand-holding, and annoying companions who you are forced to spend large tracts of time with in close quarters. However this tour was organized by West Bengal Tourism, so it was bound to be entertaining and unpredictable. After some initial bumbling, the tour operators did redeem themselves with generous servings of hearty Bengali fare during each meal.

After a long bus ride from West Bengal Tourism's head office in Kolkata, we were dropped off on the main street of a dusty village. A ten minute walk later we reached the pier, and waited for our ship for  a lengthy period of time. There were no bathroom facilities around, and the bladders of many a lady were bursting at the seams. They had to go aboard a docked ship and use the toilet there.

News slowly traveled through the tour group that we would have to take another boat to reach our actual ship, as there was a bridge on the river that was too low for our vessel to sail under. A rickety raft was overloaded with the tourists, who were then transferred to the barge where we would spend the next two days and one night. On the return journey, the raft had been freshly painted. I was left with an irremovable black tar stain along the backside of my designer jeans as a souvenir.

We enjoyed the tranquil scenes of the idyllic coastline as we slowly sailed by, stopping at several nature reserves on the way. As darkness fell, the boat anchored for the night. Everyone came to the top deck to enjoy a night viewing of Bodyguard, an entertaining Bollywood flick about the musclebound titular character and his seduction by (not of) the lady he was protecting.

Famed for its man-eating tigers, the Sundarbans can be a dangerous place. Many villagers have lost their lives to tiger attacks. At one point, 50-60 victims were consumed annually. Why the tigers of this region enjoy human flesh as part of their meal plan is not yet known, but is believed to be hereditary. Despite repeated efforts, I did not spot any of the magnificent beasts.