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.
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.
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.