Category: Tea Places

Posts about interesting places to drink tea around the world.

The Best Tea House in Sarajevo

I first heard it whispered about in the cozy kitchen of The Doctor’s House hostel in Sarajevo. Čajdžinica Džirlo, or ‘the hippie tea shop’ as the girls at the hostel put it. It was my second day in Bosnia and I was having breakfast with some other guests at the hostel, girls from Spain and Britain. We got to talking about when they told me I had to visit this place, near the Ottoman fountain in Baščaršija, the old town market.

One girl grabbed a map and the place was pointed out and circled.  “It’s awesome,” she said, “You have to go.” I did go, and it was awesome.

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The Tea House Challenge at Lake Louise

a.k.a. one of the best goddamned days of my life.

I’m so excited we’ve finally arrived here!

I wanted to share this with everyone for so long. Someday I am going to become a tea house hermit in the Canadian wilderness. It’s only a matter of time.


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The Tea House Challenge

The Tea House Challenge is a 14.6km round-trip hike that starts at the base of Lake Louise and takes you in to and behind the mountains around the lake, and back again.

It should be considered a sacred pilgrimage for any tea-lover who finds themselves in western Canada.

At least, that’s how I feel about it.

There are two tea houses: the Lake Agnes Tea House, and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. Each has it’s own trail, or you can combine them into a super trail for the longer Tea House Challenge Route, which is what we did.

You don’t need any maps. The trail is straightforward. When you reach Lake Louise, follow the path that leads towards the back of the lake and you’ll come to the trailhead naturally.

Everything can clearly marked, with lots of good signposts along the way. A lot of the signs were in miles. Canada only got their metric act together in the 70s, and a lot of the signs have been here much longer.

And hey, we made this awesome video to share with you.

It starts off on a rainy morning. We saw lightning strikes as we headed across the Lake Louise Parkway.

We weren’t allowed to film inside the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. They have a no-media policy to preserve the atmosphere and let their guests tune in to nature instead. Totally fine by me. Their chocolate cake made everything okay.

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Okay, so I did sneak one photo. Of this mostly-eaten cake. I couldn’t stop myself; the cake was half-gone before I even picked my camera up.

Not in the video: When we arrived at the Lake Agnes Tea House (with only enough money for one chai!) the staff at the Lake Agnes Tea House gave us a note to take to the staff at the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. In exchange (and out of the kindness of their hearts) they gave us a cookie.

The two sets of staff hang out together and walk the path between tea houses all the time. They also walk up and down the mountain nearly every day, with trash or to get supplies.

The note said, “See you for church night. Don’t stand us up again!”

I asked our server what church night is.

“Oh, it’s half off wings and beer down in town.”

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The Banff Tea Company provides the tea for the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. I visited the tea company in Banff the day before (because of course I did) and there I learned that the woman who started the Banff Tea Company now owns the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House.

The Banff Tea Company even does a special Plain of Six Glaciers herbal blend. I got this and some of their Traveller’s Tea. They do a lot of specialty blends with rocky mountains and Albertan themes. Definitely visit them if you’re in Banff.

You can’t buy any loose tea at the tea house. Bringing up stock is difficult so they only keep on hand what they need to cook for guests. If you want to buy tea, best stock up in Banff before or after.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is pretty old. It was built in 1927 by two Swiss guides for the Canadian Pacific Railway. There is also a dog named Arlo-Barlo.

The Lake Agnes Tea House is the oldest tea house in Canada. It was built in 1901 by the Canadian Pacific Railway and started serving tea in 1905. They have been serving tea for 110 years.

Honestly, walking up to the Lake Agnes Tea House was like walking into Rivendell. We were so tired and it was such a paradise. There’s even a waterfall with stairs going up the side you have to climb to get there.

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For Canada, that’s mighty old.

That’s a lot of cups of tea.

It was so chilly outside the tea house and warm inside with the ovens going that thick condensation hugged the windows. It was so cozy. I could have spent the whole day here.

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I don’t know if you can tell, but I am VERY happy here.

Also, we had some ridiculously good photo weather. I mean, and this is half brag and half incredulity, but just look at these!

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I kept feeling like I was in Jurassic Park, or a new Mac OS screensaver. Either way, goddamn lucky. It was rainy and overcast when we left (as you can see in the video). Never thought we’d get clouds or sun like this.

The photo above is a piece of the mountain known as the Big Beehive.

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If you do this route, don’t forget to bring cash.

The Lake Agnes Tea house is cash only, and Plain of Six Glaciers did take our VISA, but bring cash, that way you’re good no matter what.

Ask me any questions you want about the trail! Is there anything I forgot to add?

And (of course) a rainbow at the end of the day to tie it all together.

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This was a day when I felt really lucky to be alive and be human and get to climb mountains and drink tea and see rainbows.

The world is a really extraordinary place. I’m very privileged and lucky, but you know what? A lot of people who can afford to, don’t even make time for little pleasures, like looking at rainbows, and drinking tea. They say they can’t, or just don’t think of it.

Make time for those things, okay guys? They’re really important.

And you know what? Rainbows are free. Tea is nearly free.

What’s that phrase, “the best things in life…”

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Day 16 Costs:

  • Family Diner, Lupper for 2: $34.29
  • Lake Agnes Tea House, Chai Latté: $4.00
  • Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House (chocolate cake, 2 sandwiches, soup with corn chips, chai latte, 2 bottles of water, lemonade): $53.80

Total: $92.09

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon

I was walking down a desolate street in the middle of a hot afternoon and. Closed signs and shuttered doors of bars and theatres stared back blankly at me as if to say, “Don’t you know what time it is? Come back later.”

Then I reached the intersection I was looking for at northwest Everett street in central Portland, Oregon. Kitty corner across from me there was a big pair of stone gates with Chinese characters. Beyond them, an oasis and a tea house.

Lán Sū Chinese Gardens in Portland, Oregon is the result of a collaboration between Portland and their sister city, Suzhou, in Jiangsu province in China. Suzhou is known for its beautiful Ming Dynasty gardens. Although I’m no expert, Lan Su staff say the Lan Su garden in Portland is one of the most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. A wealthy 16th century family home is recreated inside the garden.

Lan Su Chinese Gardens in the sun.
Lan Su Chinese Gardens in the sun. It really was a crazy hot day. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

The tea house inside at the back of the garden is run by The Tao of Tea and set inside a building known as The Tower of Cosmic Reflection. It’s the coolest place name I’ve ever heard.

I recommend doing the garden and house tour first and then stopping for tea and snacks at the end.

This was my first time having someone present “gong fu cha” to me and the Lán Sū Chinese Gardens were the perfect backdrop.

Sitting by the open window of the second floor of the tea house, I felt more like I was in Suzhou than Portland.

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My server was extremely knowledgeable and quick to recommend the Frozen Summit Oolong when I asked him to suggest a favourite. Healso had a great flare for showmanship, pouring my tea with grace and flourishing the wet leaves under my nose to sniff. As he performed the gong fu ceremony he explained every step.

This was the start of my west coast oolong kick.

Frozen Summit is a single origin tea from Lugu in Central Taiwan. I should mention that The Tao of Tea is a local Portland company. They provide all the tea in the Lán Sū Tea house and are a 100% pure leaf tea company, meaning they use no artificial flavours, colours, or preservatives.

Gongu fu cha

Gong fu cha is what you call the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and it literally means, “making tea with effort/skill“.

While not as rigorous or formal as Japanese tea ceremony, gong fu still has specific rituals surrounding it. The idea is for you to be conscious/present when you pour the tea. Basically, put some effort into it.

Gong Fu paraphernalia includes an unglazed clay tea pot, a serving pitcher, several small clay tea cups, a set of bamboo tongs for moving tea leaves, a ceramic bowl for holding the tea leaves, and a slotted tray to capture overflowing water.

All the gongu fu cha paraphernalia.
All the gongu fu cha paraphernalia. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

I asked my host to treat me like an absolute novice when it comes to Chinese tea.

We begin the ceremony by having me smell the dry tea leaves in the white porcelain bowl.

THen he takes the tea from the bowl using his bamboo tongs and drops them into the clay  tea pot. He adds hot water (around 85˚C), and swirls it around in the teapot, before dumping it into the serving vessel (as seen in the photo above).

This first infusion is just to ‘awaken’ the leaves. It gets poured out and the hot water is added again for the first drinking infusion.

A trademark of gong fu cha is the multiple steeps. The first steep is quite short – about 15 seconds for this oolong.

Subsequent steeps become longer and longer – adding about 10 seconds each time.

Once the tea is sufficiently steeped, it’s poured into the serving pitcher (the thing that looks like a gravy boat). This is so that all the tea you drink from this steep has a consistent flavour. My host tells me this oolong will be good for about seven steeps, and has me smell the wet, steeped tea leaves to appreciate their aroma.

From there, it’s poured into the tall “aroma” cup. Then, the shorter drinking cup gets placed over it and flipped upside down to empty the aroma cup contents into the drinking cup.

I’m then given the aroma cup to smell – once again, appreciating the tea. After that, I continue to sip from the small drinking cup.

You repeat the process over and over for each steep until the serving pitcher is empty.

My host said I didn’t have to flip the aroma cup over every time – that I could just pour the tea straight into the drinking cup from the serving pitcher if I liked, but it was too much fun flipping over the cup. Did you hear the ‘bloop’ noise in the video above?

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Lan Su Chinese Gardens also had amazing snacks. Dumplings, veggies, and larger meals were available too. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Marbled tea egg at Lan Su Chinese Gardens. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
Marbled tea egg at Lan Su Chinese Gardens. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

There are a few different types of light snack on offer. I tried steamed dumplings, bao-zi (steamed buns), and a marbled tea egg.

All were good, although I wish there had been meat-filled steamed buns available. I recommend the marbled tea egg for the more adventurous. It has a unique taste; a combination of soy sauce, star anise, and pine-smoked tea. The smokey flavour really comes through. You’re served the egg at room temperature or slightly warm.

There is a lot on offer for tea drinkers here. If I were a Portlander, you would probably find me sleeping under the tables.

In terms of atmosphere, clay pots line every spare inch of the shelving. Chatty patrons are sitting in bamboo chairs and at wood tables. The smell of dumplings snakes through the air from the kitchen entrance. Students from the local Wisdom Arts Academy play soft, traditional Chinese music on their liuyeqin and yangqin instruments.

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Altogether a wonderful experience. Even if you’re not a hardcore tea drinker, I think anyone would enjoy this combination of delicious snacks, tea and heritage under one roof.

Entering the the Lán Sū Gardens costs $9.50 for adults, $7 for students.

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The Russian tea room in Massachusetts

The phrase, “You like Russia? You should visit Clinton, in Massachusetts.” is high on a list of things I never thought I’d hear at the Women in Travel Summit in Boston, but it happened, so I went.

Included in the price of purchasing my conference ticket was the chance to visit the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton. It was definitely the curveball stop in our otherwise conventional list of “Johnny Appleseed Country” type visits on our regional tour, but it ended up being my favourite place because of its interesting history and complete randomness.

The front door to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)
The front door to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

An interesting history

So how did this Museum of Russian icons end up in small town Massachusetts? The answer — an eccentric millionaire: Gordon B. Lankton.

Lankton built his fortune as CEO of Nypro, Inc., a plastics company. Before Nypro he was a plastics engineer and a soldier. He was an avid traveller, and even wrote a memoir about the motorcycle trip he took around the world in 1956 and 1957 after being stationed in Germany. He wanted to visit Russia for a long time but because of his soldier status he was unable to enter Russia during the Cold War.

Once the war ended he went to Russia. With the help of a Russian-speaking tour guide he toured local markets and bazaars and acquired his first icon at a flea market in the Izmaylovo District in Russia

This was where his obsession with Russian icons began.

Now Lankton travels to Russia and buys up all the icons he can find. He’s been doing it for the past thirty years. He built the museum to house his collection and it currently has over 700 Russian icons and related artifacts. As a result, he has the largest collection of Russian icons in North America.

Their oldest icon is from 1450 and they have an old cross from the 5th century.

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The whole museum was lit with these really subtle, pulsing LEDs that according to the guide are meant to mimic the light coming in through a stained glass window. There’s also traditional Christian Orthodox monk chanting music playing softly in the background. The museum itself has also been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church, so it’s actually possible for Christian Orthodox couples to be married here. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

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Russian icons

An icon is a religious painting done by the Russian Orthodox Christians. The tradition can be traced back to AD988 in Russia (called Kievan Rus at the time). Icons depict saints, so Russian Orthodox Christians kept them in their homes and churches for luck and prayed to them. Smaller icons were carried by soldiers into battle or by travellers as a good luck charm. They’re often made of wood painted with egg tempura.

Early Orthodox Christians in Russia thought of icons as portals to the divine. I’ve been told that if hordes were invading a village, the resident holy man would run towards the invading horde with an icon raised for protection.

There is also a specific way to portray each Saint and there are over 450 ways to paint the Virgin Mary.

That sounds like a song lyric, doesn’t it?

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One of the most beautiful and unique aspects of Russian Icons I learned about were minyeia. Pictured above, these are calendars with each day featuring one or more saints. The details were so miniscule. Our museum guide told us that some brushes might only have one hair on them, and that the painters would have to paint, “between heartbeats”. (Mel Hattie/Mel Had Tea)

Russian tea room

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Although it was awe-inspiring to be in the presence of ancient icons, I was equally excited when we made our way to the tea room in the basement. This cozy space featured lots of Kusmi Teas (also available in the gift shop) and various Russian snacks.

Although they keep a Keurig which provides the hot water for day-to-day guests like myself, they had a whole back wall full of beautiful samovars.

Samovars

Samovars are the traditional water heating tools for tea in Russia, Turkey and parts of the Middle East. They’re an old tradition, but not as old as the icons upstairs — the first known samovar was manufactured in 1717. “One is electric,” our tour guide grins, “but we take the plug out when it’s on display.”

If you visit on an average day you’ll likely get your water from the Keurig in the room, but the museum does host a Russian tea ceremony once a month.

I had Kusmi’s Prince Wladimir, an earl grey base blended with vanilla and spices.  It was pretty good for a bagged tea and appropriately Russian, but I wish we’d gotten to use the samovars.

Still, for a tea junkie like me it was nice just to see their collection of samovars had a place among the ancient icons in this strangely old yet futuristic building.

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If you go, entrance is $10 for adults and $5 for students. See if you can catch the Russian tea ceremony. If tea and icons aren’t you’re fancy, the building’s energy-efficient design and LED lighting scheme are impressive nonetheless.

Hwaeomsa Temple: Spirituality, Chanting at 3am, Wild Tea Gardens and my Near-Appearance in National Geographic

Hwaeomsa Temple – One of the jewels of Korean Buddhism. Literally, it’s name means, “Flower Garland Temple”. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful temples in all of Korea.

It’s located on Mt. Jiri (or Jiri-san – Korea’s first designated national park!) in Gurye County in Jeollanam-do province. Fortunately, that is also reasonably close to where we were staying at Danielle and Gordo’s place in Suncheon. First we took a bus from Suncheon to the city of Gurye (where we hung out in the bus station) for around 9,000₩, and them from there (because we were running a bit late) we took a taxi to the temple base for 9,000₩. There’s also a shuttle that runs every 30 minutes or so  that would’ve cost us more like 4,000₩.

We arranged a temple stay at Hwaeomsa, and were looking forward to the authentic experience of getting up to chant with the monks at 3am and eat breakfast at 5am; to do some community work, and breathe deeply the refreshing air of the mountains. Ahhhhh.

I have to say that at first I felt myself buck a bit at staying the night.  This is because it was still only March, and I had done a temple stay once in Japan around this time of year and sleeping on the cold temple floor had been a test of fortitude in itself. I was pleasantly surprised to find out (as I should have known) that the Koreans have done this supremely right – they are the masters of in-floor heating. And so, the humble room that we shared with two Korean girls felt like an exotic palace. I sprawled on that heated floor on my thin and threadbare monk mat, and got what was probably one of the best sleeps of my life. This despite the fact that we were awoken at 3am to proceed to the dharma drum.

Most Korean temples have a dharma drum. It typically hangs in a two storey pagoda that makes it easier for people to watch. Here’s a great shot of it, taken by Simon Bond, an amazing photographer whom we met at Hwaeomsa Temple, while he was there shooting for this July’s edition of National Geographic Traveller India (he’s also a local from Suncheon, as fate would have it). This would be the edition of Nat Geo that I ‘almost’ made it into. Below the cover (shot by Simon), you’ll see a photo of one of the spreads inside the feature. In the upper right hand corner, you’ll be able to see a white ginger-beard guy sitting in a tea ceremony. That’s Gordo! To his left was Simon, and then to his left was myself. So I’m about a foot and a half away from being published in National Geographic. That’s as close as I’ve come to that life goal (so far).

This is the dharma drum at Hwaeomsa!

Getting up so early in the twilight really made the whole temple grounds seem surreal. There was no one awake except for us, and the temple grounds seemed vast. It would have been a great time to shoot a kung fu movie.

I didn’t bring my mobile phone or camera with me to take pictures because I didn’t want to disturb the atmosphere. I was proved a fool about fifteen minutes later when some other temple-stayers started taking out their cameras to take snaps of the monks as they drummed away. *sigh*. Nothing is sacred anymore. Some people were even using flash. Flash! At 3am! With monks! Come on!

To be honest though, anyone who comes to a modern buddhist temple expecting to go back in time 300 years will be in for a sore surprise when they see monks playing around on their Samsung smartphones and logging into Facebook while driving their cars around the monastery and checking the time on their (surprisingly fashionable) watches. This wasn’t true for every monk we met, but during a tea ceremony we had earlier that night, as we talked with the monk presiding over the ceremony, and our new friend Simon who’d spent a lot of time around the hermitages, we learned that this was more common than not in the modern age of monkery.

Something the monks did have going for them was their fleecy hats (as you can see the fellow in the photo wearing). It is COLD at 3am in the mountains. I had a superlight polar shell on under my monk robes, as well as my old orange hat (thank god I finally gave in an threw it away later on the trip – it was getting really ragged) and was still freezing in my extremities. The dharma drum seems to be sort of a “call to mass”, as during the drumming, more monks kept emerging from their dormitories and heading up to the main temple where we would go to to chant, and had chanted earlier that evening before the tea ceremony and bed.

Chanting is hard work.

Specifically, the sitting. In Japanese they call it ‘seiza’ 正座 (literally, “proper sitting”). I don’t know what they call it in Korean, or if they call it anything, but it makes your legs go to sleep like crazy. And just when you think you’re starting to adjust to it, the monks finish a line of prayer and you have to stand up and do a bunch of deep bows (but not quite enough to get the circulation back in your legs) before sitting down and squishing your legs again. I feel like the sound of my knees cracking as we rose the 20th time may have temporarily drowned out the sound of about 40 monks. Rob’s technique involved try to roll back on his legs, and then use that momentum to spring up at the required moment (Rob: “That was some Bruce Lee shit!”)

After morning chants, we had the option of going with a couple monks to make a chain of Buddhist prayer beads, which I was mildly tempted to do, until I heard that you had to do one knee-cracking bow for each bead you put on the chain. No thanks, back to bed for a couple hours.

We woke again around 5:30am for breakfast. Monk breakfast here is largely fermented veggies and rice porridge. I found it surprisingly tasty though. Koreans know how to use spices and seasoning. That was something I would put in my body again.

Applying deodorant with great poise in our dormitory. Applying deodorant with great poise in our dormitory.

After breakfast, we all gathered together some rakes and other tools for some weeding and sweeping around the temple grounds. This is a common thing in Japan too – whenever you stay or visit somewhere, you take some time to do some cleaning work for your hosts. Either that, or every place I’ve visited like this in Japan and Korea has developed a really humble and clever way of getting foreigners to pay their dues. Just kidding – it’s not just foreigners who do the work. Everybody pitches in.  It’s always a fun time and you meet some people while doing a little bit of exercise. I always get a kick out of it because you’d never see North Americans paying to do yardwork back home. The temple stay was 40,000 per person for one day/night (all food included).

One thing the monks really stress is to finish everything on your plate, and not leave anything behind to be wasted. So at supper the night before, I was a bit leery, as I have a tendency for my eyes to be bigger than my belly. Luckily, I played it cautious and had a personal moment of “Victory!” as I finished my plate (very quietly, so as not to disturb monk meal time). As I finished, I looked up and met Danielle’s eyes. She gave me a panicked look – she had taken too much food. Oh no! What to do? We weren’t supposed to talk – each of us had an adorable laminated monk placemat with the values of buddhism, and a ‘suggestion’ that no one should say anything during mealtime. The four of us foreigners exchange a flurry of eye signals and eyebrow wiggles, Rob and I expressing to Danielle that we could not take her plate, as we were both full already. A few more expressions between her and Gordo, and the extra food in question was bravely (as he was already stuffed) and subtlely dispatched by him after a swift exchange of bowls and a sideways glance.

Being a monk is hard.

We met a great array of people during our temple stay. Rob and Gordo’s roommate “Linus”, and a bunch of other families and young people who had come for the experience.

After we had done our part to clean up the yard with weeding and sweeping, we broke from our monkery and exchanged our robes for normal clothes, as Simon had offered to take us deeper (and upper) into the mountain to see the Manjusri of Yeongiam Hermitage. It’s a statue of the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom that measures 13m high.

This isn't it.

The next mysterious turn of our journey would take us to another hermitage with a wild tea field. Simon knew there was this English-speaking monk up there. This is where we met Sven. Sven is a character – a dermatologist turned hermit from Hamburg, Germany who was born in the same suburb that I lived in when I lived in Germany (Bramfeld! Just how small is this world?) Sven’s day job now that he’s quit dermatology to become a monk is to look after the tea plants at this hermitage (Rob: “He was a sassy monk.”). Sven explained to us that to prepare the leaves for tea, they knead them and turn them over while drying them for seven hours straight. I asked him if you could buy the tea, but it turns out that a lot of the temples around there don’t sell their tea – just use it in ceremonies or trade it as gifts with other temples (like some secret, tea-based economy).

Sven is the fellow on the right, wearing the cheeky grin. Sven is the fellow on the right, wearing the cheeky grin.

Sven offered to take us up to see another shrine that had been decorated for a festival the night before, and this is where our story takes a turn for the vague/weird. After showing us the nice little pavillion they had set up, he suddenly took off into the forest saying something about a vanished silver plate. Okay? Sure, my sassy monk friend. So we took off into the bamboo after him.

Somewhere between there and halfway down the mountain, we learned that the plate he was so ardently searching for had been dropped by another monk at the celebration the night before, and had rolled down the mountain. Ah, okay, so this is what we were looking for. Despite the five of us beating around in the bamboo bush while making our way down the mountain (through absolutely nothing that resembled a trail), we saw no glint nor hint of this silver plate. Spontaneously, once we had gone further down the mountain than would be worth it to venture up again, Sven seemed to lose interest in finding the plate, “Ah well, one of the monks probably got it last night.” But hey! We had come to a mountain stream and Sven took us out onto the boulders in the middle of it, to drink and splash around in the cold pools. The water here was incredible. It looked liked liquid crystal.

“You should jump in!”

After some splashing and chatting, we realized that we were only maybe a twenty minute walk from the temple entrance. We had emerged from the forest side of the river, but across the stream saw a path that we had traversed the other day.

Then, as quickly as he’d come, Sven jumped across to the other side of the river, bid us goodbye with his cheeky grin, bowed and disappeared back up into the mountains.

I’m still not entirely sure he was human, and not some German-Korean cultural mishmash of a trickster character. Anyway, we were gladder for having met him.

We headed back down the mountain and I enjoyed exchanging some Doctor Who trivia and opinions with Simon (a Brit! And a Doctor Who fan as well!).

The trip to Hwaeomas was an amazing time. Heading back to the main gates we were feeling pleased, tired and healthy. The best.

We then caught a taxi from the base of the temple and headed back into Gurye on our way home.

Sleepyface. We were all content but tired from our days of mountain climbing and monkish lifestyle. Sleepyface. We were all content but tired from our days of mountain climbing and monkish lifestyle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that the Gurye bus station on the way home was the scene of one of my most embarrassing traveller moments to date.

Nay, it was not a traveller moment. It was a tourist moment.

I left my cell phone in the back of the taxi cab we took down from the temple.

I have never done this before.

This really threw me (I blame the large pockets in my polar shell, which is had fallen out of, and the fact that we squeezed four people into a taxi cab, so we were sitting pretty awkwardly, which likely caused it to fall out. But really, I blame myself. Always check yo’self when leaving a taxi!).

Luckily, I have really cool, smart, resourceful friends. With a combination of Gordo’s mishmash Korean language skills and the kindness of a waiting taxi driver, we managed to determine which cab company the taxi we had taken belonged to.

The taxi driver at the terminal then put out an APB on my cellphone via the Korean taxi radio lines.

There were some long, skeptical minutes of waiting, but then we heard back! The driver who had taken us was on the other side of town and would bring my phone back (as long as we paid for his return trip… thanks buddy).

But still, huzzah! I was so relieved. I turned into a mushy hothead for a bit when I realized my phone was gone, because normally I’m so good with having my shit together when I travel (Rob: “Your shit’s never together”).

But I guess that just goes to show you never know what little crisis you may need to deal with while travelling – and it’s always best to keep a calm head no matter what the situation.

This has been a pretty big post, and is venturing closer to the tl;dr ledge. In fact, it may already be over. Thanks for sticking around and reading!

Tea in Seonamsa Temple at Mount Jogye

Coming back from our two weeks spent in Korea felt like waking up from a dream. To me, the experience of being in Asia is always surreal. I remember talking to friends before I left, and telling them about how even though I had definitely lived for more than five months in Japan, sometimes I still caught myself wondering, “Did that actually happen?”. So different it is from the experience of daily life here. As time passes, again I’m sure I’ll feel the same way about Korea. Then, I’ll have to go back to Asia again.

So, with that said. Here is my first post from Korea. Our friends from Halifax,  Danielle and Gordo, were our hosts while we were staying in Suncheon (순천시). They were also our excuse to go and see Korea in the first place. Even though they are living in a typical, small one-room and kitchen apartment like most English teachers are given (in fact, their furnishings were a bit above-average), we still managed to live and sleep all four of us plus two doggies all quite comfortably. They also got me addicted to Coconut Oil, which you can use for just about everything, and which I suggest you go out and buy/try immediately. You can it on your face, in your oatmeal, in your coffee, makes pancakes with it, etc. Seriously: go and try it (bonus: it’s also super healthy for you, medium-chain triglycerides for energy and is very stable at high temperatures. Plus, whenever you use it you get to smell like you’re at the beach).

An adorable cup with a barley tea sample that we were handed on the street in Suncheon-si. More tea, please! An adorable cup with a barley tea sample that we were handed on the street in Suncheon-si. More tea, please!

Seonamsa temple is relatively close to Suncheon-si, located in the west end of Mount Jogye Provincial Park in Jeollanamdo Province (for Canadians – Korean provinces are much smaller than Canadian provinces. For example, South Korea’s largest province is Gangwon at 20,569 km². Nova Scotia is 55,284 km², and is Canada’s second-smallest province after P.E.I.). Danielle and Gordo had described to us what a special place Seonamsa was, and how they even offered walk-up tea ceremonies. I love tea, and I hadn’t seen tea ceremony since Japan, so I was very, very encouraged to go. We were so lucky that Danielle had an afternoon free from classes, so she was able to come with us to spend time and be our tour guide in the mountains.

We took a bus ride from Suncheon-si (luckily, bus service in Korea is great, with most city buses going to even remote tourist and temple locations, for only a couple dollars – very unlike Halifax) up through the mountains to the temple bus stop. I think it only took about 45 minutes. Once we were there, we hiked up the 1km path through the mountain that takes you to the temple entrance.

Foliage on the way up the mountain to Seonamsa. Foliage on the way up the mountain to Seonamsa. This outdoor shop we passed in the bus that seemed to collect kitsch art. This outdoor shop we passed in the bus that seemed to collect kitsch art. More scenery through the bus windows. More scenery through the bus windows.

Seonamsa lived up to its hype as a beautiful and spiritual place.

Korean students on a field trip walking back along the path that leads to the main temple. Korean students on a field trip walking back along the path that leads to the main temple. Our guide Danielle, with her very Korean Samsung phone. Our guide Danielle, with her very Korean Samsung phone. No shortage of beauty. Little rivers running down the mountain. No shortage of beauty. Little rivers running down the mountain. I wished I had brought a tripod do to some longer exposures! I tried lying still on the ground, but that didn't quite cut it. I wished I had brought a tripod do to some longer exposures! I tried lying still on the ground, but that didn’t quite cut it. You'll catch a spray of these tiny pink flowers in the woods every once in awhile out of the corner of your eye. They're like the melodic refrain of the Korean countryside. You’ll catch a spray of these tiny pink flowers in the woods every once in awhile out of the corner of your eye. They’re like the melodic refrain of the Korean countryside.

So many temples have been destroyed by fire. Nowadays, there is no shortage of fire extinguishers located on temple grounds. So many temples have been destroyed by fire. Nowadays, there is no shortage of fire extinguishers located on temple grounds. The symbol on the bottom of these teacups is Suncheon-si's logo. The symbol on the bottom of these teacups is Suncheon-si’s logo.

Halfway up the trail to the main temple complex, there is a gathering of smaller buildings which is where tea ceremony is held. As we approached, there was a small group of women weeding the gardens out front. We timidly approached them to ask if we could have a tea ceremony, and they warmly welcomed us. One of the women bid us entrance into this beautiful little building with glorious in-floor heating and soft, purple carpets (seriously, the Koreans know how to do cozy rooms. Japan, are you listening?). Our host sat us at a low table near an open window that looked out onto the foliage of the temple grounds. Over the crest of the mountain next to us we could see the sun beginning to set (it sets early in the mountains), and so we were bathed in a golden light as our host spoke to us in Korean and told us in what sounded like poetry, the way of Korean Tea Ceremony. After she finished, I had the same feeling of contentedness like I had just lain in the sun for a two-hour nap. She was probably wondering why I was gazing so ardently at her, but after she left I confirmed with Rob and Danielle that we all felt like we could’ve just sat there listening to her for hours.

Each table for tea ceremony had a different fresh plant sprig sitting in a bowl of water on the table. I think my level of focus actually increased just by walking into this room. Each table for tea ceremony had a different fresh plant sprig sitting in a bowl of water on the table. I think my level of focus actually increased just by walking into this room. Our host served us these small treats that had traditional symbols associated with tea stamped into them. One was the kanji for cha (茶) that I was pretty excited to recognize from Japanese (no surprise really, as Korean language also has it roots in Chinese characters). I think the treats were made out of barley (please, someone correct me if you know I'm wrong), and had a sweet, grainy taste. We ate them with the bamboo skewers you see in her left hand. Our host served us these small treats that had traditional symbols associated with tea stamped into them. One was the kanji for cha (茶) that I was pretty excited to recognize from Japanese (no surprise really, as Korean language also has it roots in Chinese characters). I think the treats were made out of barley (please, someone correct me if you know I’m wrong), and had a sweet, grainy taste. We ate them with the bamboo skewers you see in her left hand.

And we haven’t even been to the main temple yet!

Despite feeling like we could sit there in that pool of sunlight sipping tea for eternity, we paid the fee for the tea ceremony (the equivalent of only a few dollars apiece. More than worth the experience), gathered ourselves up and continued our hike up the mountain.

Seonamsa's famous bridge, Seonamsa Seungseongyo Seonamsa’s famous bridge, Seonamsa Seungseongyo

There's a beautiful story about this island and the monk who made it, but I need to dig through Rob's account of our travels to remember what it is. There’s a beautiful story about this island and the monk who made it, but I need to dig through Rob’s account of our travels to remember what it is.

We finally reached the entrance to the main temple!

A beautiful example of a classical Korean temple paint job. A beautiful example of a classical Korean temple paint job. It's common to buy a roof tile to write your wish on. The tiles are then used during temple construction and become a part of Seonamsa. It’s common to buy a roof tile to write your wish on. The tiles are then used during temple construction and become a part of Seonamsa.

An amazing grove of Cypress trees. An amazing grove of Cypress trees.

I had to take some pictures of our beautiful guide once we got to the end of our climb. She had been so good in telling us everything about the temple! I had to take some pictures of our beautiful guide once we got to the end of our climb. She had been so good in telling us everything about the temple!

A female monk in the middle of her devotions at the shrine of Kannon/Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion. A female monk in the middle of her devotions at the shrine of Kannon/Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion.

Once we had seen all the temple grounds, we beat it quickly back down the mountainside with the last of the day’s light. Once the sun leaves the mountains it becomes chilly very quickly. We waited below for our bus to come back to get us, minds full of what we had seen, but bellies substantially less so. But, all the restaurants near the bus stop had already closed for the night!

This little restaurant near the bus stop overlooking the bridge reminded me of Howl's Moving Castle - with its steam pipes and thrown-together appearance. This little restaurant near the bus stop overlooking the bridge reminded me of Howl’s Moving Castle – with its steam pipes and thrown-together appearance.

Luckily, I was distracted from the hunger and cold by these lovely flowers near the bus stop. Never go into the mountains without a sweater!

Mmmmmm. Kimchi Jji Gae. Mmmmmm. Kimchi Jji Gae.

Because our friend Gordo is an excellent chef, as well as a super-par human being, when we got back to the apartment he already had a hot and spicy pot of Kimchi Jji Gae (김치찌개) waiting for us.  This hearty kimchi soup might have been one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.  I’m craving it again just looking at this picture.  Does anybody know any good spots in Halifax that make Kimchi Jji Gae?  I would dole out a large amount of love and appreciation if you told me where I can find this here.

Wow, that post ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would. Thanks for sticking around! If you have any more questions about Seonamsa, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them. For now, I’m going to find some food.