18 April 2015

Land of the Morning Calm part 3

As all good travelogues must, I struggle to walk a fine line between telling a rousing story of adventure and sharing the exact yet possibly less-interesting truth of exactly what happened. For drama's sake, I share here the best and worst part of my trip. It is perhaps ironic that even as I prepare this posting today, I am again fighting a monster illness of similar voracity as I did during that spring break week in 1992.

You can read Part 2 here and, if you happen to be further out of date, Part 1 here.

As you may recall from Part 2, I was trying to make the best of my sightseeing situation despite a monster cold complete with sore throat and nasal drainage, headache and body aches. What got me through it was a magic elixir provided by the Korean pharmacist. After visiting the tourist sites of Ch’ônmach’ong, Pulguk-sa, Sokkuram, and Anap'chi, I got on a bus heading across the Korean peninsula to Kyong-ju....

The scenery I saw outside the bus windows was quite plain at first, brown hills and brown farms, but I kept looking for some mountains that looked like the ones at the beginning of the M*A*S*H programs every week—you know, the pair of bare, rocky peaks the helicopters descend from.  The land was pretty dry, also it was between winter and spring, a time when nothing is growing and everything looks brown.  But later, after we passed Taegu—and didn’t stop; it really was an express bus—we switched over to the ’88 Olympic Expressway, a brand-new highway cutting through the mountainous Chirisan National Park.
There were several bare rock mountains, looking similar to the M*A*S*H programs.  The farm villages we passed were primitive-looking, however.  Maybe I wasn’t so surprised after my experiences in Pusan and Ulsan, but still, seeing the little shacks, or nicer adobe houses with their little walls surrounding the front yard, again made me wonder if Korea was really such a modern country.  The sight of farmers behind a plow pulled by an ox was something I was not expecting.  I wanted to get a picture of a “cow-plow” but it was difficult to spot a brown cow against the brown dirt, but finally I got one.
Finally we did stop for a restroom break, at the Chirisan Service Area.  Over the entrance was a sign duplicating the five Olympic rings.  In all, it was an uneventful trip, as I listened to cassettes I'd bought in Ulsan using my Walkman, and watched the scenery, waiting with camera in hand for any dramatic scenery to photograph.  The pictures came out a little dark because I had to set the shutter speed fast to stop the picture—as fast as the bus was going.
About 4 hours after leaving Kyong-ju, we arrived in Kwang-ju—which was about 2 pm.  I got off the bus and went into the terminal to look for my second friend, my pen-pal Joung-Jin [“JJ,” her English nickname].  I had called her the night before to say when I was arriving, and she said she would meet me at the bus terminal, which meant that she would be driving from her home in Mokp’o up to Kwang-ju, an hour and a half drive.  Inside the terminal, however, there was nobody I recognized and no room to sit down, so I went outside and stood by the front door, near the taxi stand—where every driver there wanted me to take his cab. I parked myself where I could keep an eye on both directions at once.
It was warm and sunny and Kwang-ju appeared to be a decent city.  After about 15 minutes, I saw JJ walking along the sidewalk toward me.  She said that her friend, English name “Sue,” was supposed to meet us here, so we waited another 10 minutes until Sue arrived. Then we walked to where JJ’s car was parked—near the “local” bus terminal, where they had expected me to arrive.
JJ’s friend “Sue” was a middle school biology teacher but she took the afternoon off to brush up on her English, and the two of them bundled me into their car, a red sports car, and we drove off down the same highway I had just been riding the bus on. We drove along for about 45 minutes before exiting and burning down a road that wound up through the hills to Songwang-sa, another temple deep in the woods. JJ liked to drive, it seemed, but after 4 hours on a bus, I would have benefited from a slower, less ferocious driving style, especially riding in the cramped back seat.
The temple of Songwang-sa ("sa" means temple) was nearly empty at that afternoon hour and the souvenir shops looked closed.  My escorts decided I must be hungry from my long trip, missing lunch while riding on the bus, so our first stop was the cafe there among the souvenir stands.  Again we had the traditional many dishes dinner, which JJ said did not include very many good things.  At least it was cheap.  JJ insisted on paying for everything—for my entire stay, in fact, even to the point where I was begging for the chance to pay for something.
We walked through the temple, a very nice and colorful place.  Certainly, I would not have been able to visit such a place if I was traveling by myself.  In the temple’s gatehouse were the giant wooden statues of the guardians, one I recognized from a postcard I had sent out the day before.  The face was about 6 feet across and a paler shade of pink than on the postcard picture.  Inside the courtyard, several worshipers were waving incense around and bowing down on their knees.  As we walked around and I took pictures, a couple tour groups arrived and filled the courtyard. We didn't stay long. JJ said that she was never really interested in temples but understood that Westerners like to see them. 

So we drove back, but they decided they didn’t want to pay the expressway toll again, so we wound around a large lake and along back country roads.  It was scenic around the lake, and I was able to see the “real” countryside of dirty villages, but having spent 4 hours on the bus, and another 45 minutes in the car, and now not knowing how much longer the ride would be, I was getting car sick.
Probably the fact that my cold was so bad was the reason that I was distracted at all from my stomach.  Actually, the cough syrup was wearing off and my head and sinuses were beginning to feel pressure pain.  But soon we made it back into Kwang-ju, and they drove me around the city, seeing some of the sights. It was nearing dusk by then and so they took me up to Moon Mountain. 
I took some pictures of Kwang-ju from the outlook on the mountain, which looked nice the way the sun was setting on the western horizon. We passed the university, which had interesting architecture, the buildings all white and with high-peaked roofs, like Swiss chalets, nothing like Korean style.  We stopped for dinner at a "French" restaurant after dark and had a pizza.  Sue said goodnight then and JJ drove us down to Mokp’o, the seaport on the end of the peninsula.
In the darkness, of course I couldn't see much.  But when we entered the town, she pointed out a few landmarks and then suddenly we pulled up in front of a white-walled building.  Out came JJ’s mother and little brother to greet me through the iron gate.  Once inside their house, I was shown to the guest room and offered more to eat and drink.  But I was dead tired and my cold was worse so they said they would take me to see their doctor in the morning.  He was a relative, JJ said, so it would be easy for me to get in. 

Well, they say Korea is the “Land of the Morning Calm” but I never found any morning to suggest the origin of that nickname.  JJ’s mother is a music teacher, I quickly learned, and JJ is a private English teacher, so their students come before and after the regular public school hours.  Thus, at 6 a.m., the opposite side of the wall near the head of my bed was filled with the strains of six pianos loudly playing scales up and down the keyboard.  And it didn't stop until 7:45 when the kids left for school! 
That first morning, I decided I might as well get up and get into the bathroom and take a shower while the room was free.  Then, dressed for the day, I lay back down once the music stopped.  Until I was called for breakfast.  Well, the Korean traditional breakfast is just about whatever they would have at lunch or dinner.  JJ preferred a Western style breakfast, but this morning settled for Korean style on my account.  Then we all got into the car and went off to the doctor. Her little brother, a 6th grader, we dropped off at school first.
The doctor’s office was packed and noisy when we stepped inside. I sure got my share of stares by the locals, but we did get right in and the doctor spoke to me in English—even as old ladies sitting around his office kept cutting in shouting their questions and complaints and he shouted back at them to wait their turn or whatever.  He diagnosed that I had a I cold and prescribed medicine, 7 pills (one for each symptom) to be taken 3 times a day (a 4 day supply).  JJ insisted on paying for my medicine at the pharmacy there inside the clinic.  No more delicious super-codeine cough syrup! 
Then we swung by the post office to double check the postage on my postcards and buy a few extra stamps for other postcards—and I mailed the ones I had finished.  We had met JJ’s grandmother there at the clinic and JJ said she didn’t speak any English, but after we all returned to the house, we got into a conversation, and she was fluent!—in Japanese.  I couldn’t keep up, and I heard all of the little particles sprinkled among the words I understood and I knew that she was good, so I tried to say what I could to be polite.  The gist of what she said was that either her brother or her former, now deceased husband was a student at Waseda University in Tokyo and that he wrote his letters to her in Japanese, so she learned to read it.
JJ and I went for a drive through the city of Mokp'o and out to the shore.  We went to a park to climb a mountain, Yudalsan, which overlooks both the city and the harbor, and on the opposite side, the ocean itself.  I was interested in the mountain from the first moment I saw it, because it had lots of “bare rock” for dramatic effect.  I explained that since I was from Kansas, a land where you could drive for six hours and not even see hills, mountains in general and especially those with dramatic scenery, mostly in the form of bare rock faces and peaks, interested me the most.

At the base of the mountain, by the parking lot, was a statue of Admiral Yi, who a few hundred years ago invented the first armored fighting ships, which were called “turtle boats.”  Legend also had it that he had the mountain completely covered with straw so that the invading Japanese forces would see it and think it was a huge pile of rice for the Korean army and overestimate its size.  I’m not sure if it worked or not, but Hideyoshi did invade Korea eventually—at least he tried. The Japanese navy was turned back by the turtle boats.  Unfortunately, it was a hazy morning, and me being the only foreigner in all of Mokp’o (probably), I got many stares as we climbed the mountain.  From the top of the larger peak, we had a good view of the city.

After climbing down, we drove around the mountain and out the road along the seaside. The sun began shining through the clouds.  Back in town, we stopped to pick up some hamburgers at “Big Boy” and took them out to the dam to eat.  An inlet of the sea had been dammed to create a fresh-water reservoir.  The hamburgers weren't too bad, but the French fries were awful.  We walked to a building nearby which turned out to be a restaurant and souvenir shop and got some ice cream.
Heading back to Mokp’o, we stopped at the “Cultural Hall of the Country.”  JJ said she had never been inside but was told it was a kind of rock garden.  So in we went.  Behind the building was indeed a yard with many strangely shaped rocks and stones there, some with colorful flowers around them.  But inside the building, it was like a rock museum, with two large rooms of stones on display.  There were naturally formed stones in shapes which resembles something else, like a rabbit or a crane. There were stones which looked like rough-cut miniature islands, many set in pans of water to better simulate the effect. And there were stones which had some intrusions of minerals which served to give them a “picture” of something on their face.  Each rock had a sign with the name given to the piece and where it was found.  Some of the names did not fit what we thought it looked like.  We started laughing at how silly it seemed to be looking at all of these rocks, but as we went on it became fun, because we started to give our own names to the rocks.

It was getting late, so we headed back to JJ’s house.  I took a short nap before her 5:00 class of 6th graders.  I was to be a guest in the class, and all of the students (including her brother) had to introduce themselves to me and ask me questions.  Later I helped to teach them the numbers 1-10 by assigning a number to each student and calling a number at random; the others had to point to that student whose number I called.  Of course, the faster I called numbers the more fun it was.  But then I was excused—I was beginning to lose my voice anyway. It was time for JJ to teach the grammar part of the lesson.  After that class, we had supper—the same many dishes of Korean goodies.  That was it for me that evening, and I took my medicine and went to bed early.
The next day (Wednesday, I think it was), I woke at 6 am to the sound of music again, but I got up and got dressed to go with JJ to her kendo practice.  It was in a small dôjo behind the city stadium about a kilometer from their house.  The kendo master, a man of about 60 and very tall for a Korean, was surprised to see me enter the dôjo but he was friendly and shook my hand.  I watched the practice.  JJ was in full armor and had good form, having been studying every morning for six months.  Her brother also practiced but he was prone to showing off.  Then we returned to the house for breakfast.  This lifestyle in Mokp’o was beginning to remind me of my army training, where we got up early and had a full-day’s schedule before breakfast, and then had a really full day after.
Then about 9 o’clock, another friend of JJ’s arrived to take us to another temple.  JJ didn’t know the way and didn’t want to drive so far, so she invited her friend—I never caught his name except his family name was pronounced “Moon”—who had a bigger, more comfortable car.  So the three of us drove out of Mokp’o, back across the dam, and into the hills to the east, and an hour later arrived at Turyunsan State Park.
The temple wasn't so big but the main thing there was the mountain scenery and the hiking trails.  My guide book continually stressed that Korean people loved mountain climbing but JJ continually insisted that she was one who did not like mountain climbing.  So we went only a little way.  With my cold moving up into my head and my eyes itchy and my nose runny, I did not feel much like a long expedition, but being out in the sunny, fresh air seemed to make me feel better.  There was a nice waterfall where we took turns taking pictures.  The scenery was lovely springtime scenery, the cherry tree blossoms and yellow flowers and greenery of the mountains with the bare rock, and the stream gurgling down among the boulders—it was peaceful.

Next we went to the memorial park of Wang-In.  Who was Wang-In?  Little did I know but soon learned, he was the Korean who went to Japan to teach the Chinese characters to the royal court.  In other words, he taught the Japanese all of those strange characters called kanji.  Should he be thanked or cursed for that?  Well, in Korea they praised him with this memorial.  He also taught the royal court the principles of Buddhism.
The main memorial was a three-tiered display with separate shrines and monuments.  Out from the memorial proper was his restored birthplace and up on the mountainside another temple for praying to his spirit.  In the main memorial, one large building housed Western-style oil paintings from the life of Wang-In.  The picture of Wang-In as a baby looks like the manger scene in Christian texts. 

On the way back to Mokp'o, we stopped for a late lunch in some dusty town.  I learned later that they were Mr. Moon’s relatives.  The dinner was a dish similar to Bulgogi.  The appetizers were certainly interesting: assorted raw fish and seafood.  I tried a few that looked safe.  Then came the bowl of octopus—freshly cut, white-gray, wiggling—and I didn't think that I could indulge in that local specialty.  I was encouraged to try it, however, so I lowered my chopsticks but as I tried to grab a piece of severed tentacle, the piece of tentacle wiggled and grabbed onto the bowl and I couldn't pull it off with my chopsticks.  That’s enough, I said.  Mr. Moon tried one and announced that he felt it wiggling as it went down his throat.
Back at JJ’s house, we went through our usual evening classes, and we had a dinner of Kalpi—the barbecues ribs that are famous—prepared by the mother of one of the students.  Many of the students came for music lessons and stayed for English lessons.  Every hour was a different grade of students: 6th graders, middle school, high school, and one college girl.  JJ said she canceled her private adult lessons this week for my visit, but the younger students she wanted to meet me, a real native speaker.
Later I asked her what she charged her students and she told me 150,000 Won per week. So, at four lessons a week, counting just the fifteen or so students I met, times the 150,000 Won, times four weeks per month--that is a handsome income indeed!  No wonder she could afford to pay for everything during my stay, including my cold medicine and any souvenir I picked out to buy for myself.  Whenever I tried to give a gift for her and her family’s hospitality, they gave me a return present.  Consequently, I returned with about as much as I brought with me from Japan.
After dinner, we went out to find a bookshop where I could buy a map of Mokp’o, and a music shop where I could browse.  JJ took me into a crowded music shop stacked from floor to ceiling with cassettes and CDs but it seemed too daunting for me to browse through every spine label with all the other customers staring at me.  I really was the only Westerner in Mokp'o, it seemed.  But everyone seemed to know JJ and she got her way wherever we went.  The bookshop, however, was a disappointment.  We went to the biggest one in town but they only had books—no magazines, no newspapers, nothing but books, only books, and nothing in English except textbooks.  So we stopped at a travel agency and I got a simplified map of the state and a tourist guidebook in English.
Back home, I began the task of packing everything, shuffling my dirty clothes around and saving my fresh clothes.  We had checked the schedules of buses and trains and concluded that the most efficient way for me to get back to Pusan for my flight to Fukuoka was to take a six-hour bus directly from Mokp’o to Pusan, leaving at 10 am and arriving at 4 pm.  With enough drinks and snacks for the trip, I climbed aboard and waved goodbye to JJ.
The bus took the back roads at first, going through various seaside towns east of Mokp’o.  The trip was uneventful, except for a group of high school students who were joking around in the back seats and caused the bus driver to stop and scold them a few times.  They also kept asking him to let them take a restroom break at several stops along the way other than the designated restroom break stop. The bus seemed to stop at every little town’s bus terminal to pick up or let off a passenger.  Once we connected with the Nanhae Expressway, it was non-stop to Pusan.

Once in the environs of Pusan, I was worried which terminal the bus would go to: the dirty “local” bus terminal Eun-Sook and I had arrived at from the airport, or the “express” bus terminal next to the McDonald’s.  The main difference was whether I would have to take a taxi to complete my journey.  If the express terminal, I could walk a couple blocks to the subway and take it down into the city and walk a couple more blocks to my hotel for the night.  But, it was not to be.  It went to the same dirty terminal as before.
Undaunted, I walked out to the taxi stand where two drivers began fighting over me.  I told the one with the fancier car that I wanted to go to the Crown Hotel. Actually that vicinity had several hotels and I would choose the cheapest one.  Well, this taxi driver was smiling that he had a foreigner in his taxi, and even though I had my map of Pusan sitting in my lap so I could see how we were going, and I was sure he saw that too. He decided to take the “long” way, through the Kukdok tunnel.  Well, once I figured out that he was going to take the tunnel route, it didn’t seem like the most direct way, but it was also beginning to be rush hour, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he knew how to avoid the traffic.  We arrived finally at the Crown Hotel and the meter read 4900 Won, for which I started to hand a 5000 Won bill to him, when he said it was 3000 Won for the tunnel so I thought, well, it’s a rip-off but at least I’m here. 

As soon as I got out of the taxi to get my bag out of the trunk—I was careful to see that he got out, too, to open the trunk—and I handed him the 10,000 Won bill, I “knew” he would not give me change, so I just waved him on and let him drive off laughing that he had gotten a 2100 Won tip.  But the joke was really on him, because that 10,000 Won bill was nothing to me—it’s worth ¥2000 for the 25 minute trip.  This was the first country I had ever visited in which I really felt rich compared to the local folk.
The Crown Hotel had gone up a notch since my stay in Seoul a few years before (you can read my harrowing account here), and so I went over to the Kukje Hotel.  The room was almost as much as my plane ticket (in Won) but I wanted a good night’s sleep and a good bathroom to use before I returned to Japan.  I went out for dinner, looking around the neighborhood, obviously catering to Japanese businessmen by the number of “Japanese” restaurants.  I settled for the “western” restaurant in the hotel itself—had the place all to myself until dessert—and had a sirloin steak, which wasn't too bad, and cheap in Won.  I then had my good night’s sleep and in the morning caught another taxi to the airport—this time, no tunnel and only 5500 Won.

I was two hours early and so I finished writing my last three postcards, and bought stamps at the post office in the terminal.  I changed back my last Won, saving 6000 for the airport tax.  There was initially some trouble when I produced my Asiana Airlines ticket bought in Ulsan for the attendant, but she returned and continued business as usual.  I think the problem was that I bought it at the airline’s office in Ulsan—and they didn't have an office in Ulsan, but evidently it was recently opened.  It worked, anyway, and the ticket said “equivalent value of USD69.00” and it got me on the plane for the 30 minute flight.  The soccer boys from Japan were getting on the same plane with me, too, I saw.  And the same Korean ticket taker who had spoken to me in English conversed with them in Japanese as she directed them through the Immigration and Customs gates.  On the flight we had a sandwich lunch, which was more than was served on the flight to Pusan on KAL.

From Fukuoka, despite still hampered with cold germs, I took a detour down to Saga, my old stomping grounds where I previously had lived for two years and taught English at the city's nine middle schools. Then I continued back to my home in Okayama. 

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

11 April 2015

Land of the Morning Calm part 2

It's springtime now and a young man's thoughts turn to fresh air and new blossoms. I'm currently revising a novel set mostly in Japan, and set mostly in springtime, but I am recalling a springtime trip I took to Korea while I was living in Japan and teaching English there. Close enough? 

You can read Part 1 here.

As you may recall from Part 1, I had the best laid plans for an enjoyable spring break trip to South Korea but awoke my first morning there with a full-blown cold!
As it turned out, it was good that I didn’t have a heavy sightseeing schedule lined up that day. It gave me time to get my cold under control. After 12, I went out to get something to eat. Eun-Sook, my college friend's sister who was acting as my guide, and I had arranged to meet the following day in front of the Koreana Hotel, the city’s largest, to catch the bus to Kyong-ju. So I decided to walk over there and see where it was—about 3 km's walk. On the way I thought I could find a place to eat, maybe a Kentucky Fried Chicken if I was lucky, since I'd seen a couple on the way to Ulsan.

Seeing Ulsan in daylight, albeit a cloudy gray daylight, Korea really looked dismal—old and dirty, broken down, out of fashion. [This was 1992.] Very different from the Japan I had just left. But it was interesting, nevertheless. Ulsan is a major industrial hub, home to Hyundai Industries; perhaps it was not meant to be glitzy and exciting.

I found the Koreana hotel and ate in their restaurant. I had what was called on the menu “filet mignon”—an overcooked steak that was not a real Filet Mignon and served with a smear of mustard—for 17,000 Won (¥2500/$30). I decided I had to keep up my strength while I fought my cold, so I took it.

Feeling better after the meal, I decided to make my way back and try to find the block where we first got off the bus from Pusan. That was the district where all the young people were mingling on the sidewalk. From the bus I had seen a large music store there. It took me about three hours of walking—the city is very spread out—to find it, not that I was in a big hurry.

The sun had come out and although the wind had picked up, it was becoming a pleasant day. The fresh air made me feel better. I got some bread from a bakery, presumably to be my supper and breakfast, later got some mikan (like tangerines), 5 for 1000 Won (¥700).

Then I found the block, probably the classiest street in town, where the buildings actually looked new and in modern style, where the well-dressed people came to mingle, where the music shop was.  Inside, I saw the prices were ridiculously low compared to music in Japan. Korean pop/rock singers were 3500 Won (¥700), Korean-licensed cassettes were at 3800-5000 Won, and the imported Western labels were at 10,000 to 18,000 Won (up to about ¥3200). With a bag of music cassettes in my hand, I returned to the inn and took more medicine and went to bed after listening to a sample of each tape on my Walkman.

Saturday. I slept in a little, not expecting to remeet Eun-Sook until 3 pm. I returned to the “fashionable” street, not to buy more tapes but to eat lunch in the pizza shop I saw there. I found that my throat was too painful to swallow. The coughing from my chest that I was doing made my throat worse. But I had used all of my Coricidin.

That morning I was just interested in getting something to coat my throat. Cough drops, at least. So I took out my Korean phrase book and found the word for “cough lozenges” and wrote the Hangûl characters on a piece of paper and the Roman transcription next to it. I also turned to the “doctor” section and wrote down “sore throat.”

I took my camera to photograph some places I’d seen the previous day—not that they were so nice looking, just recording what I saw. I took pictures of some traditional dresses in window displays. I passed a few pharmacies until I found one that looked better than the others.

Inside, a man in white lab coat was at the counter and I pulled out my piece of paper and spoke the magic Korean words, pointing to my throat. He smiled, understanding or just amused, then looked at my paper, reading the Hangûl I wrote. He spoke some English and sold me a bottle of cough syrup (no lozenges available). The package came with tiny little plastic cups—like thimbles—one for each dose, and he explained in broken English the instructions.  It was pretty good stuff—for my throat and my cough—but it didn’t cure my cold, not that I expected it to. Feeling better just from now owning some medicine, I continued down the long main street of Ulsan to the pizza shop.

I saw an Asiana Airlines office on the corner and went inside to pick up a timetable. I asked about flights from Pusan to Fukuoka, gave the girl the date, and found they had seats available. How much, I asked and was told it was 52,000 Won. I did a quick calculation and knew that it was less than the cost of the ferry and less than the KAL flight I bought in Japan. Let me have it, I was practically singing across the counter at her. A 40-minute flight was better than a 15-hour boat ride. Especially being sick.

The pizza was good. The family that ran the shop (snack restaurant in back, bakery store in front) were very happy to have me as a customer. When I selected a loaf of fresh-out-of-the-oven bread to take with me for the bus trip to Kyong-ju, they called it even when I handed them a 10,000 Won bill—the pizza was 7500 Won and the bread (fancy kind) was 5000 Won.

I returned to the inn and took my new medicine, then finished packing. I took a taxi to the Koreana hotel, the designated meeting place, settled into a comfortable chair in the lobby with a copy of the English-language Korean Herald newspaper and a handful of English pamphlets and maps, waiting for Eun-Sook to arrive at 3 pm.

When Eun-Sook arrived, we took another taxi over to the bus terminal at the opposite end of town and caught the “local” bus for Kyong-ju--the next city to the west from Ulsan. But we had to settle for the absolutely last seats on the bus, the back window behind us. I was really afraid of getting car sick along with my cold, but fortunately it was a relatively short trip, about 45 minutes. I guess the pizza was working for me. And the blessed codeine!

In Kyong-ju we walked to the first “Yugwan” (family-owned inn) we saw and checked in, me in the northwest corner and Eun-Sook in the southeast corner. We seemed to be the only guests among the dozen or so rooms. We checked in and were given towels and water. This time the water was in a large tea kettle, as though it was freshly boiled.

The guy checking us in (owner?) was kind of a jerk: when we gave him the money for two nights stay, expecting change, he said (to Eun-Sook in Korean) that since we were checking in early (4:30 pm) he’d keep the change as the early fee. Who else did he have to check in to his place, anyway? And what time was “regular” check-in? We could wait until then, but...we were too tired to hassle with it. It turned out to be a custom of the country—keeping the change.

Once checked in, we went walking around town looking for a good place to eat, looking for a bookstore, looking for souvenir shops. We saw many tourist hotels—Kyong-ju was a “tourist” city, after all—and lots of signs in Roman letters saying “Tourist Hotel” and “Korean Restaurant.”

I was beginning to be particular about my meals now, not very impressed with the cleanliness of everything, especially where food was served, so I suggested the “Korean” restaurant at a fancier-looking tourist hotel. But we found that it was closed, so the hotel doorman directed us upstairs to the “grill”—which looked like a “nightclub”: low chairs intended for sitting back and drinking rather than scooting up to the table for eating. I had a steak—some kind, anyway; it was just called “steak”—which was pretty good.

I was awakened early, however. I thought we had agreed on meeting at 8:30 for breakfast (rolls and mikan bought the night before), but I guess Eun-Sook misunderstood when I said I would get up at 7:30—so at 7:25 there was a knock on the door. I looked at my watch, then answered it. Waking from a dead sleep like that, with a full cold, it was not a good moment, but I persuaded her to come back in 30 minutes and gave her some mikan to start eating. After I pulled myself together, I didn’t feel too bad. The sun was shining and it seemed like a good day for sightseeing.

Our first stop was the huge tomb mounds of the ancient Silla kings. It’s called Ch’ônmach’ong, or “Flying Horse” tomb because of a horse’s mud guard found in the burial chamber showing a flying horse. It is also the largest mound in this park. The mounds could be seen rising above the buildings of the town, and they were so perfectly round and their slopes so smooth that they had a rather striking appearance.

My first impression upon entering the “park” was that it did not feel like a cemetery, much less one for kings. It was peaceful and pretty in its own way. One mound was opened to the public—literally. It had been excavated and hollowed out, and you could walk inside. A glass wall separated the viewing area from the burial chamber. The bones were still there, along with the gold crown and the shield, sword, and many gold rings on the bony fingers. A little eerie, but how often do you get to walk inside someone’s grave?

Outside, the cherry trees were blossoming, along with other flowers I did not know the names of, which added to the beauty of the place. From the parking lot beside the souvenir shops—and I looked in all of them but bought nothing but postcards—we caught a taxi to go down to the Pulguk-sa “resort area.”

The main attraction was one of the most famous temples of Korea, Pulguk-sa. (The sa means “temple.”)  Well, it was a Sunday and the tour buses were busy; many people dressed in their “Sunday Best” or the traditional dresses came just to take pictures with the temple as a backdrop. It was a little early in the year (higher altitude up on the mountainside, of course) for the trees to be in bloom, so my pictures were not as good as the postcards. The areas inside the compound were better looking than the front facade.

I had Eun-Sook take lots of pictures of me. I learned through the course of my trip that all temples in Korea have the same colors, especially that aqua blue-green. I found them colorful and because we don’t have such architecture in America, we Westerners have to take pictures of it. It was a rather extensive temple complex and the passageways wound around and around through the hills. I lost count how many “inner temples” there were where people were on their hands and knees praying.

It was about lunch time by then, and the weather was sunny and warming. We decided to take the bus up the 13 km mountain road to see Sokkuram, a cave at the top of the mountain with a carved stone Buddha in it. The other option was to take the 3 km straight hike up the mountainside from near Pulguk-sa, a journey that I did not feel up to with my cold. But we had an hour to wait for the bus, so we decided to get lunch in the “village” of souvenir shops and cafes across the road from the Pulguk-sa parking lot.

We had barely stepped onto the curb when old ladies were running up to us trying to drag us into each of their own cafes, fighting for our business. Eun-Sook decided on one and we went in. The usual kind of dinner was served: all of the little bowls of things edible and inedible, though always interesting looking. It was fast and cheap, anyway. The restaurateur seemed offended when we asked for separate bowls for the soup, since I had a cold—otherwise, Korean style is everyone helps themselves from any of the dishes.

Then we got on the bus bound for Sokkuram, the name of the mountain which rises behind Pulguk-sa. The road winds and winds and from high up in the bus, we can really get a good view of the way the bus would go down to the valley below if it were to swing a little too wide on one of those hairpin turns! Thankfully, we arrived at the top, but not at the grotto. That was still a 2 km walk along a wide path which wound around the mountainside.

It was scenic as we walked. Below the trail was a river valley. Once we arrived at the sacred grotto,” we had to fight the crowds of people. It is an active, holy place, where a glass wall separated the statue from the worshipers, leaving a space of about eight feet between the glass wall and the back cave wall, and with people in front bowing down on all fours, it was rather crowded.  There were signs saying no photographs, but it was too dark anyway, and with people jostling me there was no way I could take a long exposure picture.

Next, we took the bus down the mountain and then caught a taxi in the parking lot and rode about 15 minutes back toward Kyong-ju but got out at Anapchi Palace grounds. This place was formerly the grounds of a huge palace of the Silla kings, but not their real palace; no, this place was just used for summer parties. The forest and the lake were stocked with wildlife and the three pavilions you still see standing were originally only minor porticoes from which to view the lake. All of the grassy areas were where the palace stood. In one of the pavilions there was a scale model of the original palace.

Across the street was the Kyong-ju National Museum, and we went around through it. Unfortunately, only about 25% of the displays had English signs  with them, so I spent about 15 minutes sitting on a centrally located bench and observing the artifacts from that short distance, then took a quick walk passed them up close. Walking out to the exit, we saw the bus stop and waited about two minutes for the bus to arrive, then rode it through the town of Kyong-ju until it arrived at the bus terminal, the one two blocks from our “Yugwan” inn. We took a rest, then went looking for a better place for dinner than we had previously.

We found a restaurant specializing in Bulgogi, one of the dishes I can eat, which is a kind of spicy beef stew. It was a small family-run shop near the bus terminal, but it was clean, and on the TV in the dining area they were showing Doogie Howser, M.D., an episode I had seen before. But what was funny was the voices they gave the characters. You and I know they are just teenagers and Doogie and Vinnie have higher-pitched kid voices, but in Korean you would think they were 40-year-old men, yet their girlfriends in the program were given such itsy-bitsy cutesy voices you would think they were five years old. Oh, well...a bit of home far away from home. The bulgogi was delicious and I felt I had finally come to appreciate Korean cuisine.

I bought some mikan oranges, some chocolate, and a large bottle of soda for my long bus trip the next day, then we retired. I would be continuing on across the Korean peninsula to meet a pen-pal while Eun-Sook would return to Ulsan. The next morning, Eun-Sook saw me off at the bus terminal, to make sure I got on the right one. I had finished my Ulsan cough syrup the night before, so when I saw the sign of ‘Pharmacy’ in English letters in the bus terminal, I went to the counter and bought another bottle of the syrup. Good stuff.

The bus came on time and left on time, only about one third full, so I could stretch out. But when it pulled out of the terminal, it turned left instead of right and I panicked that it was somehow the wrong bus, but then it turned right at the next big boulevard and headed south to the expressway. At the tollgate, however, the bus driver was told to pull over, and I wondered if it was some kind of random search for drugs or whatever. No, after ten minutes, a Korean fellow climbed on board and retrieved a bag he had left on the bus. The bus driver was angry at the delay and it was obvious as we pulled onto the expressway that he wanted to make up for the lost time. 

We continued on down the expressway like a bus outta Hell!

[to be continued]

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

01 April 2015

Land of the Morning Calm part 1

Spring is a unique time for me. It's not my favorite season and it has weather-related problems such as rain and tornadoes. But I do like seeing the trees blossom and the scent of allergies in the air. It also reminds me that a new year is beginning. (Remember, most civilizations began their calendar year in spring, not December.) I have good memories of springs past.

One spring in particular, I'll tell you about here. I was living in Japan, teaching English, and decided 
during my time off to visit a friend from college who lived in Korea. It turned out to be a case of everything going wrong that could go wrong. I assure you that, while this is a subjective reportage, every word is true.

[I posted previously about another, briefer visit to Korea I took back during my Japan days. You can read it here.]


 (or how we used to travel in the good ol' days)

For the spring break holidays at the end of March [the Japanese school year ends then], my original plan was to fly from where I lived in Japan over to Korea and return by ferry. 

Then I decided a round trip flight was most economical. By then, however, I could only get a confirmed reservation going, not returning. I checked about every day during my week and all flights were full. I even had to leave a day earlier than expected to get on the flight from Fukuoka to Pusan. Even taking the shinkansen (“bullet train”) to Hakata (Fukuoka’s station) so I could fly from Fukuoka cost less than the direct flight from Okayama to Seoul and connecting flight back to Pusan. 

My friends lived in the southern tier so I didn’t see any reason to go to Seoul first. Up to the last day, I couldn’t get off the waiting list for the return flight, so not wanting to be fooling with it, I told the KAL girl in Okayama to cancel the return and I planned on taking the 15-hour ferry (overnight) back from Pusan to Shimonoseki (north of Fukuoka). That was my final plan when I arrived at Pusan’s Kimhae airport.

To get there, I had to get up early the morning of March 26 [1992], already packed the night before, take out the trash (it was trash day) and get to the bus stop by 7 am, wearing my black jacket with the liner in it and my gloves, the sky threatening to rain and a cold wind blowing. I got on the bus and made the transfer at the next town over,Takahashi, to get on the train and also at Okayama, using the shinkansen ticket I bought three weeks earlier. 

Except that I had to stand all the way to Hiroshima, something I really like considering the high prices they charge for a seat—but it was the only way to get to Fukuoka in time for the 2 pm flight. 

At Hakata/Fukuoka, I saw the signs for the subway, and remembered that they had been constructing an extension of the line all the way to the airport. So I looked and looked for the right entrance, finally asked a ticket taker who said I had to take the bus. Then why did they have the signs up in English that said to take the Chikushi line to the airport? 

So I went next door to the bus center and took the bus to the airport, arrived two hours before my flight departure. As I had yet to actually pay for my ticket, I wanted plenty of time to correct the hassle if they were wrong.

First, I had to wait in line---a line which kept expanding in front of me as mobs of Korean tourists were stepping in front of me as though I wasn’t even there, pushing their bags ahead inch by inch to grab the extra advantage. 

After they finally opened our gate to let us go up to the check-in counter and I was first in line, naturally I was told that I had to go to another counter---which was outside the gate---to purchase a ticket. 

At that particular counter, a bunch of yakuza types in black pinstriped shirts and white suits, kept cutting in front of me. I was angry---enough that I didn’t care who they were. Especially since the main guy was just “canceling” his flight, I heard them saying. Finally they stepped aside, while one attendant ran to get some paperwork, and the girl gave me my ticket. 
Then, back in the other line, now twenty people were ahead of me.

A different KAL jet leaving Fukuoka airport more recently than my trip.

I did get on the right plane, however, and the flight lasted 30 minutes---excluding take off and landing. Hardly worth all the trouble of checking in and going through all of the security procedures. (This was, of course, back in 1992.) The short flight left little time for serving any drinks---we got a small tin of ice cream only---but enough time to take orders for duty-free junk. I thought Korean Airlines was cheap---I went to them because of the direct flight they had from Okayama (where I lived) to Seoul, then stuck with them because I thought they operated the only Fukuoka-Pusan flight, too.

I had planned on making my own way to Pusan and staying there two nights to sightsee on my own, then going north to Ulsan and then turn west across the peninsula to Kyong-ju. But in the final weeks before my trip, my Korean friend from the university in Kansas that I attended could not meet me and show me around, so he arranged for his sister to be my tour guide. At the last minute, I was told she would meet me at the Kimhae airport outside of Pusan---a three hour trip from Ulsan where she was a live-in teacher at a special education school.

Again I was first in line at the Immigration line, but of course that was not to be. No-one on the plane had seen fit to give me the little white immigration card to fill out, so back I went to fill one out at a counter in the back of the room. 

Then, back in line, I was again behind twenty other people. The immigration guy tried to give me a hard time, asking me if I had a visa. I had read in my guide book that no visa was needed for stays of up 15 days and I was only staying seven. I told him so. Then he asked a lot of questions, who I was seeing, where I was going, was I really an English teacher, how much money did I have on me. Still, I passed. 

Then on to Customs where they tore apart my carefully and precisely packed bag looking for illegal drugs---because I was, of course, an American who was not wearing a business suit and tie. They didn’t find any, though they could have found my Coricidin and Advil if they had bothered to open my small toilet article kit.

I’d had about enough of my trip so far when I charged through the automatic doors and dozens of people were staring at me, waiting for their friends and relatives. I heard someone calling my name and it was my friend’s sister. 

Eun-Sook greeted me and took me to find the bus into Pusan. It was a “local” bus, which meant crowded and dirty but cheap. It was the first of many. Eun-Sook’s English was passable; she seemed to understand more than speak (maybe also from shyness).

We rode the bus to the “local” bus terminal, still a long way from the center of town. I wanted to go “downtown” to check on the ferry schedule and cost, as long as I was there, and get some postcards to work on in the evening. But it was not that simple. 

We took another “local” bus downtown, which took about an hour through the packed rush hour traffic, me standing with my black bag between my feet, bumping the others who had crowded into the bus. One college-age guy introduced himself and asked if it was all right to speak with me, so he told me about his computer studies at the local university and asked me about my job and reasons for coming to Korea---not bad English ability.
Pusan on a brighter, much more recent day.

Once downtown, Eun-Sook looked for the signs indicating the pier for the ferry. She didn’t know where it was but she had a map book of Korean cities, so I determined our location based on the configuration of the streets as we passed through the city and other landmarks and decided we should get off at X stop, which we did---right in front of the ferry pier. 

Eun-Sook was so amazed that I could "read" Korean. “No,” I said, “I read maps!” 

In all fairness, the map of Pusan did show several places (hotels, etc.) in Roman letters, but that was how we got around Pusan: me reading the maps and getting us to the right block, Eun-Sook reading the signs to get us to the exact doorstep.

At first glance, downtown Pusan made me think of Hong Kong with its seaside piers and hotels and shopping, but Pusan was several steps below what I had experienced in Hong Kong. Maybe I was just seeing the “low end” of the district. There were no souvenir shops, no big department stores (“Pusan Dept. Store” on the corner of the main intersection at the end of the peninsula looked like something out of the 1950s but was closed anyway, being after 5 pm.) I was really not very impressed with it. It was nothing like the pictures I had seen of the city in books. (Remember, this was 1992.)

I was getting tired lugging my bag around town and since I had the number of the ferry office I decided we could call later, and so we looked for a place to eat dinner.

I was a little sick (no lunch while standing in many different lines at Fukuoka airport, then the flight, then the two bus rides) and did not think I could take strange and hot native food and wanted something simple and plain. American, perhaps. 

Nothing to be found, except a Lotteria hamburger shop in an underground shopping arcade, but that was out of the question for Eun-Sook! She was determined to show me around in place of her brother and to “let” me try real Korean food. 

Finally, we settled on a decent looking place specializing in the “grand table” (my name), in which dozens of little bowls, each with something different, are put on the table at the same time and the diners stuff themselves. That sounded great, but in actuality it wasn’t. Some things were very good, but others didn’t look good, smell good, or taste good, plus the fact that I wasn’t too hungry after all of my exertions that day!
Something like this, but mine was not as colorful.

After that, it was getting dark and we agreed to go on to Ulsan for the night. It was previously arranged for me to stay at the inn her family ran. (Actually it was not their immediate family but some other distant relative, how distant, I didn’t know, but further than cousins.) 

Well, I'd had enough of buses for one day and I opted for the train, which on the map seemed more direct anyway. All I could base my Korea plans on was how things were in Japan, schedule-wise and cost-wise. But when I finally convinced Eun-Sook that the train would be more comfortable and quicker---since it was getting late---we went back and forth looking for Pusan Station. Finally we found it and I was feeling encouraged---until we got inside. On the outside, it didn’t look bad, but inside it was old, I mean, really old: paint-stripped wood and creaking floors, and people in long lines at three windows waiting for the clerks to hand-type each of the tickets. I’m serious!

While standing in line (of course, behind thirty or so people), I was scanning the timetable, seeing the names of the cities in Roman letters and I saw that the last train to Ulsan was at 6:30! It was now almost 7:30.

I tapped Eun-Sook on the shoulder and pointed to the timetable. She did not immediately understand and turned back to wait in line. So I explained in very enunciated English that we had missed the last train so we had no choice but to take the bus after all. That made her happy. I guess she had never ridden a train in Korea---though I could see why not. 

So down to the subway line, riding it north for seven or eight stops to yet another bus terminal.

It had a McDonald’s next door, which I was interested in, but we didn’t want to take any more time---couldn’t miss the bus! We got our tickets and found the bus, climbed aboard (no-one else was on it) and waited. I wanted to make a quick stop in the restroom inthe terminal but Eun-Sook thought I might miss the bus if I did. I pointed out that there weren’t anyone else on the bus. Then a driver came and she asked about our bus and he directed us to another bus gate on the opposite side of the terminal. We ran over there and still got good seats (near the front, as I wanted to prevent motion sickness). The bus pulled away about a minute later. Whew!
Pusan train station - spruced up.

I fell asleep on the bus somehow---until it began twisting and turning. I looked out the windows as the driver hugged the curves of the winding road, horns and headlights of the oncoming cars fighting back. Was this driver crazy? I wondered why he had to go so fast on such an obviously dangerous road. Eun-Sook explained that all bus drivers drove like that. (I rode many buses during my trip and found that to be true---also taxi drivers.) 

We nevertheless arrived in one piece, if not a little nervous. The bus dropped us off at the curb in the “fashionable part of town” where the sidewalks were crowded with young people, in front of a disco or something like a disco. But of course, we had to take a different bus to get to the inn, and my shoulders were ready to fall off from carrying my bag around all afternoon and evening.

A bus pulled up and Eun-Sook gave me a bus token to use and I fought the crowd, cutting my way through them with my bag ahead of me, trying to hold them back so Eun-Sook could get on, too, but as I was at the top of the stairs she called back that it was the wrong bus. Too late! The door closed and we were off! Me, on a bus in Korea all by myself!

But it was just for a couple blocks. The bus stopped at the next regular stop and I got off and walked back to our original place. 

Eun-Sook was definitely not good with directions or getting around, but since I couldn’t read the Hangûl characters, I had to rely on her.

We got on the right bus and got off at the right stop. 

We also found the right inn, which seemed to be nearly empty. It was cheap, though, which was good for my budget. I thought that since it was the family’s business that I might get a room for free or with a discount, but since it was a relative’s inn, I still had to pay. 

It was 15,000 Won for a night, which is about ¥2000 (about $20). I was starting to learn the value---or lack---of money. The exchange rate when I changed my Yen at Kimhae airport, was 571 Won for ¥100, or about 750 Won per $1. Not knowing the costs of things in Korean, though I assumed everything would be less than in Japan, I could only calculate what they would cost in Japanese Yen. Everything was less, much less, sometimes less than half the cost in Japan! 
A yogwon, a family-run inn.

Anyway, Eun-Sook signed me in, writing my name phonetically in Hangûl, then left to go back to her school for night shift duty. It was a little strange checking in. I was given a personal bottle of mineral water for the night. The second night I asked for and got another bottle. Also, they did not give out the keys. Instead, I had to have them open the room for me whenever I went out and returned.

The next day was all mine in Ulsan. Eun-Sook had to work. Feeling a cold coming on, I took a maximum dose of Coricidin before I went to bed at about 10:30 and slept until 11:00 the next morning, awakening to a full-fledged cold.

[to be continued]

*The original report was a letter home to my parents.


(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.