September 27, 2005

Korea

Never in my life have I ever encountered the expected upon going somewhere I have never travelled before, my most recent journey through Korea being no exception to the rule. In fact I perceive similarities among the narratives of each brief trip into the unknown: initial befuddlement, followed by gradually inurement, then the final beatific denoumet which leaves me a bit wistful and unprepared for reentry into the sharply defined world that I had left. And though I expect to go back to Korea while I still am a temporary resident in East Asia, I feel the need to look back, if only at a glimpse.

Wednesday 9/21/2005

I land in Incheon International Airport at about 8:30pm, the first things to catch my eyes are the bright neon signs in Hangul, a written script whose indecipherability I recall from my first meeting with Japanese hiragana. In the airport lobby, I head to the convenience store for some bottled water. My first social exchange with the Korean teenager at the counter went something like this:

Clerk: (In Hangul) "Hello, how are you? 800 won please."
Jeff: -- [hands 10,000 won note over to clerk]
Clerk: "Thanks, have nice day."
Jeff:--

I feel like a teenager who is face to face with first love, dumbfounded by the mystery of utterance. Next, we ride into Seoul on the bus, which smells of kimchee, old synthetic leather, and an odor I cannot identify. Off the bus stop, we are instantly lost, greeted by smells of garlic, chili pepper, roasting meat, and various dishes being prepared by the street vendors. A Korean man pretends that he wants to help, but really he wants to practice English. He doesn't help, but he talks with us for a bit, crosses the street with us, and leaves just as lost as before. Finally we get to Traveler's A, our youth hostel, where we meet an old lady who is reading the newspaper on the floor. She has no chair to sit in. Our exchange is propelled by improvised sign language and an assumed foreknowledge of why we are here and who we are.
Before sleeping, Kathy, Lalindra, and I head to a Korean eatery, not very traditional, but still open at 2:00 am. There I try a dish of unbearably spicy rice cake, seafood, and onions. They have napkins in Korea, and I indulge myself to the fullest. This is my first taste of Korea, and grogginess aside, it is unmistakably wonderful.

Thursday 9/22/2005

Wake up call is early. Out of the hostel we make it to the subway, where our assignation with the fourth member of our group is set. We have agreed to meet on the green line, at Euljiro 3-ga Station. Apparently there is a mistake. Waiting for almost three hours in morning rush hour in downtown Seoul is not what I had envisioned as my first morning in Korea, but it is an eye opening experience nonetheless. The smell of frying bacon intermittently changing to rancid meat and sewage stench is more than I can take. I am a little unnerved:






Next there is the beatiful train ride across the Korean peninsula to Pusan, the second biggest city on the southeastern end of the country. This city reminds of San Francisco, fog, steep hills, quaint, old buildings, shops that are run down, cozy little neighborhoods, but there are a lot more high rise apartment complexes in this city.


Certainly the theme of this trip was "good food," and with good reason. My first lunch was a tasty bowl of Bi Bim Bap, a bowl of rice, veggies, egg, meat, and all you can handle spicy miso paste that adds color. Getting adjusted to our travels, we spent the day slowly, roaming around town and getting our bearings set. At night, it was barbequed beef, the first feast of the trip. Not much is needed to say about this except this:
Cutting the meat up with scissors was interesting, but I got the hang of it. It's just like seventh grade art class, with really thick construction paper. Then it was drinking--Korean Soju, and lots of Hite, a very light Korean beer that goes well with all the heavy meat I am stuffing myself with. At night we roam the streets, which are very similar to Osaka, but less obnoxious guys with Rod Stewart hairdos.
Friday 9/23/2005

Off to Gyeongju, the Kyoto of Korea, but a lot more inaka. Before we make it there, we had a good day at the Pusan Fish Market and then Beomeosa Temple, a restored temple (everything has been destroyed at some point in time by the Japanese) that sits atop a hill in north Pusan. Here we hike up into dense fog, and at the top we meet a gate, beyond which I may never know what lies...

At night, we arrive in Gyeongju, where Mr. Kwon greets us cordially and with great humor. What a great man Mr. Kwon is, and I will only find out this as I stay overnight, reading Korean poetry on the couch in the hostel lounge.

Saturday 9/24/2005

Morning: Conversation with Mr. Kwon and his son Clint. Mr. Kwon is adept at many arts, be they Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, or whatever. He is a remarkable calligrapher, and I have some of his works to attest for that. Here is his hand in action:

The day goes along beautifully--my favorite day of the trip. We head out to the temple in Gyeongju whose name I forget. I meet some adorable kids on the bus--Justin, Jillian, and Esther--whose English is impeccable. I want to hang out with them for hours, learn their secrets, play tag or hide and seek, but we are soon off the bus and out to roam the glorious, but restored, temple precincts. After we finish taking pictures, walking around, breathing the air, we head across the street to a restaurant for the best meal in Korea. I trysome bulgolgi, or marinated beef with veggies. We go a little overboard on the homemade rice wine, though, and soon I am passed out under the shade of a tree. There is grass in Korea, and yes, you could say it is greener. bugolgi drinking too much






where I woke up

Then it was fun on tandem bicycles, a nice end to a beautiful day:



Sunday 9/25/2005

After some trouble with our intended Youth Hostel (i.e. very shady Korean guys proposing to take Kathy out for a night at the club--for 10$), we make it to a very classy hotel (ok, not so classy, but definitely worth the wait--bedtime was around 3:30-4:00). In the morning, we head out to central Seoul, where I meet a new friend, waiting for me at the gate (the beard is definitely a fake): Finally, we have a fun night out at the nicest Pizza Hut that I have ever seen (a bit weary of all the beef eating, we decided to switch gears). Sleeping soundly after a few drinks of Confucian Family Liquor (horribly strong).

Sunday 9/26/2005

It is morning and time to go back. Sigh...

This entry was very long, I know. It took me a while to get all the pictures set in place, but I am still regretful that I couldn't include more. My favorite picture will have to wrap up my reflections on a recurrent theme of the trip--the toilet. Unlike Japan, Korea seems to be comfortable with letting us "outsiders" feel welcome, even at the public restroom. I saw this and had to take a picture. Luckily I didn't take a picture of what occured within my stall:


1 Comments:

Anonymous Kathy said...

Supposedly, Kristi has a picture of our back-stepping massages as well as you and Lali passed out after all that Soju...I'll send those to you via email once I get them from her. Btw, how's your stomach and all??
Well, it was nice recapping our eventful journey through your blogger =). Lali said you'd be up for China?? How about we make that our next pilgrimage? Hehehehehee

1:57 PM  

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