Bohyeonsan Observatory, Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do

 Somewhere in the middle of this photo is the big dipper. Just about the only one I can recognize in a typical night sky. This was taken from the peak of Bohyeonsan close to the observatory. I agree, it could have been taken from the village too, but...
Somewhere in the middle of this photo is the big dipper. Just about the only one I can recognize in a typical night sky. This was taken from the peak of Bohyeonsan close to the observatory. I agree, it could have been taken from the village too, but…

The idea for this place came about one day while I was browsing the contents of Korean Airline’s inflight magazine and I read about a small village north of Yeongcheon very close to the large city of Daegu. This town decided they needed an identity and a signature dish. And it so happens that there is an observatory right on top of Bohyeonsan 부현산 and apparently they nicked-name the village “Star City” for us English-inclined speakers, and since there seems to be quite a number of Korean parsley growers, they started making a fuss out of grilled pork belly 삼겹살 and parsley 미나리. 

And as it always goes with me, time to check it out. Interesting combination. Stars and parsley. I recall the time I was in turkey close to the Syrian border where every meal seems to have a large side serving of parsley and how I loved it. 

 I took a picture of this map just in case I need to get around, and my GPS was useless. Never had the need to do that, but I post it up just in case. 
I took a picture of this map just in case I need to get around, and my GPS was useless. Never had the need to do that, but I post it up just in case. 

Well, the first problem is that Yeongcheon is quite a bit of a distance from Seoul. In fact it is smack close to Busan, for those that don’t know where Daegu is. I didn’t think that public transport is a good idea so I drove there instead. Door to door from Seoul figure 4-5 hours including stops along the excellent rest stops operated by EX. I’ll go on a longer post one day, but these rest stops are spaced 30-40km apart and they are like a fully spec-out mini malls. 

 You can't miss it when you see this sign, just go straight and you will go through a village. The observatory requires a drive up a mountain pass.
You can’t miss it when you see this sign, just go straight and you will go through a village. The observatory requires a drive up a mountain pass.

This time I navigated with the help of a Garmin GPS for the zoomed out Kee of what’s coming in 10km and auto routing from Daum maps on an iPhone set to see what is coming up 1km ahead. 

Ok now star village in Korean would be 별빛마을, literally translated. I don’t recall seeing that on the sign boards, would be better following the brown sign for Bohyeonsan Observatory. The highway exit close to Yeongcheon would be 북영천IC and head up north. Star village would be right at the foot of the mountain, you can’t miss it as you will get to see a big sign when you enter the village. 

I don’t know if I should even recommend a place to eat this special grilled dish. It’s not that difficult to make it as long as you have fresh ingredients. So I’m taking an educated guess that any farm or restaurant in the village do a good version of it. 

What did I do? I arrived at Star Village around 5:30pm, hungry, and eager to have something to eat. Turned into the first place I see that looks like a restaurant and they seem to say that they do have samgyeopsal and minari. Seems that you order the pork and then either 0.5kg or 1kr of parsley (aka Minari 미나리). And then out comes the grill pan, and the kimchi side dish and doenjang sauce. And may I add that being a village, everything is made at home and taste way way way better than anything you find in a big restaurant. In Korea, go rural and go small. 

So. Pork grilled on a hot plate is nothing special. It is not even marinated. But the fresh parsley, how can I say it… Korean parsley doesn’t have that parsley-ish smell and taste that we are all used to. When fresh it is slightly sweet. So you grill the parsley a little next to the pork (I believe it’s to soak up the lard) and the you wrap the parsley around the pork. And it is freaking good. Parsley adds that little extra texture to the pork and sweetens the package. Naturally I started off eating the leaves and then realized the stalks are good too, in a different way. I’m not going to describe the taste here but rest assured, at least for me, it’s a Michelin 3 Star dish – apparently what they rate for something worth making the trip all the way to have a go. 

 While I never had a sip from that kettle, I guess this is where the hot water comes from. This type of heating system is seen in most countryside restaurants. I love it. 
While I never had a sip from that kettle, I guess this is where the hot water comes from. This type of heating system is seen in most countryside restaurants. I love it. 
 If I heard it right, this is a 2 year old kimchi
If I heard it right, this is a 2 year old kimchi
 The beanpaste here sure tastes different, like it has not gone through a machine.
The beanpaste here sure tastes different, like it has not gone through a machine.
 Grill some pork belly (unmarinated) with fresh parsley next to it...
Grill some pork belly (unmarinated) with fresh parsley next to it…
 And there you have it, a Yeongcheon speciality - samgyeopsal minari combo
And there you have it, a Yeongcheon speciality – samgyeopsal minari combo

And man were the village people friendly. Started asking for a place to stay and they even gave a call to a nearby community center and found that it was open. The name and contact is as follows 별빛문화센터 (011 9586 3928 tomz2001@naver. com). You get a room where you sleep on the floor, Korean ondol style and shared bathroom but it is clean and the manager, again is super friendly. 

While at the restaurant we got to talk And got help from the workers at a nearby Bohyeonsan astronomy museum as they also had dinner at the same place. And it turned out to be a chance encounter. 

 First weekend of spring, the flowers are in full bloom, and the parsley are in season.
First weekend of spring, the flowers are in full bloom, and the parsley are in season.

So the museum is back down where I came from, and after dinner the next session was at 8 pm. The place is shut till the session time. People wait inside their cars. The reason is that in every session there are guides bringing guests around the tours and the planetarium. 

As we recognized the people working there we got a special treatment. They gave a personalized tour, including a university student intern giving a lecture of the stars and constellations outdoors with a high powered laser pointer. I knew the big bear, or plow, but never knew where the rest were. And the laser pointer did its job. Got to use the telescopes too, not the large one they use for research but big enough to see craters on the moon and clusters of stars. All these were on roof top and you could see the retractable sliding roof covering the place. The sky on this night was clear enough to see almost everything. 

Apart from this ground level observatory museum, one could also drive up to the top of Bohyeonsan. In the evening I was there, the car park was the only accessible place, the observatory on the peak of the mountain closed to public. I spent 30mins there taking photos and during that time they were other cars coming up close to midnight. I couldn’t say it was an ideal place to take photos there are towns polluting the lights along almost all horizons. And the wind here is strong too. 

 Moon taken through one of the smaller telescopes at the observatory with an iPhone.
Moon taken through one of the smaller telescopes at the observatory with an iPhone.

Well, for this trip I was only there for one night and I can sum it up to be a long long drive and had a unique dish where i probably went overboard with the amount of parsley I ate and ended with a great personalized tour of the observatory museum. The people here are great, no English unfortunately, so brush up your broken Korean before coming. There’s apparently a farm nearby for horseriding, which I didn’t get to check yet. Overall I loved it, but the 8-9 hours of driving in total probably requires a long sleep to recover from. 

Recommended destination. As usual, drop me a note if you need help. 

 Nice clear night on 13th April 2013
Nice clear night on 13th April 2013
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Foods of Wan-do and Cheongsan-do, South Korea

Steamed Seafood & Abalone – Jeonbok Jjim (전북찜)

I just looked it up, jjim is translated as “steamed” but it is basically a stew with less soup than the usual, so it is really steamed with usually plenty of sauce of the spicy variety. Just about every shop sells this. Randomly picked this one on the way from Wando bus terminal to the ferry terminal. One of the cheapest I’ve seen, 38,000₩ for a medium plate that’s enough for 3 person with rice. It has abalone, squid, octopus, crabs, mussels, scallops and other seafood I cannot name served on a bed of bean sprouts and what looked like Korean water parsley (미나리) with hot chilli paste sauce. The sauce is more sweet than spicy, but tastes quite well with rice. Rice would e require at the end of the dish to wipe up all the sauce. The banchan here comes with kimchi that tastes more sour and you can kind of taste the fermentation. They like to serve the banchan here on a canteen type plates with shallow separates that serves four types at a time. Never seen this in Seoul other than canteens. Anyhow, tastes great and very filling especially when you finish off the sprouts. 

Abalone porridge – Jeonbok Juk (전복죽)

It’s porridge, with sliced abalone, and greenish stuff that I later learned was the interior parts of the abalone that lies between the abalone and the shell. The stuff is then mixed into the porridge giving a sweet tasting gruel. Nicer in winter than summer but I’d happily eat this anytime. Price usually ranges around the 10,000₩ tag. Tastes even better if the shop puts more slices of abalone. Usually looks like less than a whole abalone in most shops I’ve tried it. 

Shellfish bibimbap 

Served with different types of shell fish sashimi on a bed of lettuce. You’d dump in the rice yourself and put as much gochujang sauce and sesame oil as you would personally like and stir it into a nice uniform consistency. The shell fish gives the texture into every bite but I’m not sure that it lends too much to the overall taste. Other than being healthy, I can’t say that it’s a dish I like to order if I was a taste freak. 10,000₩ poorer for the privilege. 

Instant Noodle with Abalone – Jeonbok Ramyun (전복라뮨)

Now this is a strange one. Instant ramen is popular cheap breakfast dish. Salty, MSG and a sinful serving or never expired noodles, but with two fresh abalones inside. Had this one when I got off the ferry on Cheongsando island. That’s 8,000₩ bowl of the best combination made with Nongshin ramen. They did add some bits of additional spring onions to make it look healthier. 

Abalone and Seaweed Soup – Jeonbok Tteokbaegi 

Two things Wando region is famous for. Abalone and seaweed in casserole dish. Tastes slightly salty, but not ramen salty. Probably a lot less salty than a jiggae too. Just nice as far as my taste goes. Served with rice and the usual banchan on canteen plates. Really good for hangover I think. Not that I plan to get drunk here though. Of course no need to do so to try this dish. At the shop I tried this, I counted 2 medium sized abalone. 10,000₩ dish. It looks great as a hangover dish!

Abalone Pancake – Jeonbok Paljeon (전복팔전)

I love paljeons. Even better when I spotted the abalone cousin on the menu. That’s one expensive pancake at 15,000₩. It’s made of batter with strips of whole spring onions including the oniony bits and the leafy parts and with uniformly spaced small abalones. I did not count the number of abalones but suffice to say, there’s enough to cover the whole 20cm radius pancake. Taste? With the soya sauce with chilli flakes as a side dip, really good. In fact so good I think this is my favorite Jeon so far because of the chewy texture. Look for it in restaurants. I got mine in Cheongsando close to the ferry terminal. 

Jeonju, Jeollabuk, South Korea: Bibimbap Town

Directly south of Seoul, is the small town of Jeonju. There is plenty of history in this town, I’m sure, but this trip is not about history but about eating. No, I have not sold out yet, it is still a travel site, and not another “foodie blog”.
Back to the topic at hand… Jeonju is just 3 hours away from Seoul, enough to get there in the morning, have lunch and dinner and then come back before midnight, which is what I’m going to do.

At the Express Bus Terminal, the bus leaves from Central City terminal about every 10 minutes. There are two classes of bus, but I’d go for the more expensive service that cost 17,900W one way. According to the map, it is just about 200km away, but as usual, traffic jam plus heavy rain means that the trip took 3 hours. There will be a break half way to Jeonju, and the rest stop i surprisingly well equipped. There is a small supermarket, and plenty of shops selling sit down meals or korean junk food. They even have toebokki and sundae (korean blood sausage, not ice cream).

 Highway rest stop: Korean junk food… and it is good!
Highway rest stop: Korean junk food… and it is good!

The bus ends up in Jeonju’s Express Bus Terminal (전주고속버스터미널) in the north of the town. By now it is already quite late in the afternoon, around 2pm and I’ve not have my lunch yet along the way. At least it’s time for a proper lunch. There are plenty of taxis waiting at the bus terminal, which is convenient.

Seungmidang Restaurant
First Bibimbap mission takes me to Seongmidang restaurant (성미당) close to the Gaeksa landmark. It is hidden in a small street, but with a GPS you will never be lost looking for location 35.817413, 127.145264. Even at 3pm there is a queue here. The couple in front of me are Japanese, which makes this restaurant famous in Japanese guide books too. Normally I would avoid places like these, but maybe there’s no harm giving it a try.

 Seungmidang Restaurant exterior. I was so hungry I didn’t spot the “high end audio” shop next door.
Seungmidang Restaurant exterior. I was so hungry I didn’t spot the “high end audio” shop next door.
 Entering the restaurant...
Entering the restaurant…

There are 2 types of bibimbap here on the menu, raw beef and normal. It is not cheap at all. But at least the banchans are plentiful and not too bad tasting. And soon the main dish arrives in a brass bowl that is heated so much that the stuff inside sizzles. You mix is around and get the beef sort of cooked. The rice is already mixed with the gochujang sauce, unlike most bibimbaps I’ve had in Seoul. And the hot bowl creates a layer of hardened rice where it contacts the bowl. They call this nooroongji 누룽지, which I used to hate, but started to like after some time. What’s important is that the dish smells great.

 One way to tell a good restaurant is the sparse menu. This one is not the simplest one I’ve seen, but it still screams quality
One way to tell a good restaurant is the sparse menu. This one is not the simplest one I’ve seen, but it still screams quality
 Bibimbap before mixing. The red stuff is the beef. Gochujang is already mixed into the rice under all the toppings.
Bibimbap before mixing. The red stuff is the beef. Gochujang is already mixed into the rice under all the toppings.
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IMG_3351-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

After mixing, and pre-diving in… I could still smell the dish while writing this up.

One sentence reviews the whole dish: its damn good.

The gochujang sauce that they use is on the sweet side. Not terribly spicy, but the whole thing just balances together. I eat very quick. And best part of it all, the layer of burnt rice at the bottom with the burnt gochujang sauce. I notice locals pouring soup at the end to soften the noorongji, but I quickly developed a way to scrap the crunchy bits off the bottom. And it was good.

Well, I’m here as a tourist…
… so I better do what tourists usually do. After the nice late lunch, its time to walk around to let the food settle and get ready for dinner. Just a street to the north of the restaurant is the Gaeksa. Wikitravel describes it as an ancient hotel. It looks like a small building with an over engineered roof but I don’t see how it could be a hotel for a town. There are maximum of 3-4 rooms, so perhaps it is for VIPs only. Locals are just hanging around here having a picnic.

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IMG_3368-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Gaeksa

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IMG_3371-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

More Gaeksa. And so I lied. There were not that many people here today. Perhaps it was forecasted to rain?

A few streets to the south east of the Gaeksa is a park where Gyeongijeon (경기전) shrine is located. I believe the attraction here is the portrait of Taejo Lee, the founder of the Joseon dynasty is placed. In the central building, there is indeed a portrait. Otherwise the buildings look very chinese inspired. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to tell that this was in Korea if I saw the exact building in China. Other than that, not much more I can say about this place. There are plenty of photo groups walking around with large lenses (I don’t know what’s with these people, walking around a park with a 70-200 f2.8. If they are shooting birds, I can think of better places than parks… not to mention they probably need a 600mm for all these small birds).

 IMG_3390-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg
IMG_3390-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Strange logo at Gyeongijeon park. I don’t understand Korean yet, but it doesn’t look like “toilet” to me.

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IMG_3392-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Now this looks more like a park

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IMG_3397-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

I suppose this must be one of the shrines…

 IMG_3399-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg
IMG_3399-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

… and yes it is, and this is the portrait people came to see. Perhaps photography is prohibited here. Anyway.

Time to move east to the Hanok Village. Short review: I thought that I would be looking at old buildings. What this is, is a mash of old and new reconstructed buildings. The attraction here seems to be more the shopping than the building. There are restaurants, shops selling handicraft, a nice shallow granite “stream” on the walkway and even an Italian restaurant. Nice place to take a walk, but disappointing historically.

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IMG_3422-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Traditional meets modern

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IMG_3423-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

On the way to the Hanok Village, there are more bibimbap restaurants than any other

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IMG_3431-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Smack in the heart of the Hanok Village. And I’m sure you were expecting some old stuff too…

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IMG_3441-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

For the benefit of doubt, lets assume this is a renovated old house. This is an inn. Which I presume is getting healthy business.

Why should I complain too much. The aim was to walk enough so that I can go on to the next restaurant for more bibimbap around dinner time before going back to Seoul. By the time I was done with the Hanok village, my watch registers 7pm. Sounds like dinner time to me. I backtracked using the cookie crumb feature on my Garmin and back to Seungmidang Restaurant as there is supposed to be another competing restaurant near by that is just as popular.

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IMG_3463-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Evening in Jeonju, enroute to the next meal destination…

Gajok Hwegwan Restaurant
This restaurant is located at the south west corner of the intersection at 35.817154, 127.146157. The korean name is 가족 회관. You have to go up one flight of stairs to the second floor and enter an entrance full of pots of ingredients. This place is more of a factory than the first restaurant. Everything is piled high, waiters and waitresses with trolleys with banchan arranged and stacked up on trays ready to unload onto new tables very quickly. And the bibimbap arrived very quick too. Everything efficient.

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IMG_3480-LR-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Restaurant’s army of ajummas at work.

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IMG_3471-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Le Banchans

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IMG_3476-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

and more Bibimbaps

How did it go? I loved the banchans here. Probably better than Seungmidang. Too bad the Bibimbap was normal tasting. Still quite ok, but nothing magical like Seungmidang I believe it could be because of the gochujang here doesn’t taste as good. But overall it was a good meal, rescued thanks to the banchans. At least that’s how I feel.

Then again two bibimbaps in the span of 4 hours is probably too much for a day. After dinner, it was time to take a taxi to the bus station for the 3 hour long trip back to Seoul. I guess I’ll have to come back again to do the other restaurants in the future. And I think I might have tasted what is definitely the best bibimbap so far. And that’s a big feat for a small town!

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IMG_3483-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Ticket back to Seoul

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IMG_3484-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Night bus. Man, that TV screen is tiny from the back!

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KRJeonju-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Resulting path that I took around downtown Jeonju

*End of Post*

Travels: Nanxiang, Shanghai, China

Pavillion at Guyi Garden, Nanxiang
Shanghai is famous for this little dumpling with thin skin and soup inside. Bite it and if still hot off the steamer, it guarantees a scalding where it hurts.

The most famous restaurant in shanghai that sells them by the bucketloads, figuratively speaking, is Nanxiang Restaurant over by that tourist hole, Yuyuan Garden right in the middle of the city. Its not too far from where I stay and on weekends, I sometimes take the walk over, and stand in the half and hour queue (if I’m lucky). Its not the best in Shanghai though and its quite obvious it’s famous because it’s famous, no more. Nanxiang Restaurant also starts to expand with branches overseas.

Shanghai Bus, encountered on the way looking for that bus that will take me to Nanxiang

So not to dwell too much in stories, I found out during a chat with a colleague that the xiao loong bao, what this tasty dumpling is called, was first invented in a town called Nanxiang. Just tens of kilometre from downtown Shanghai so close that a public bus (actually many from all points) runs there from the Shanghai railway station, so we found out after browsing the chinese languaged internet. So quickly this became my mission for the coming weekend.

Continue reading “Travels: Nanxiang, Shanghai, China”