It’s no surprise to me that a torpedo was found in the wreckage of the Cheonan ship that sunk a few weeks ago. Really, I didn’t believe it all when the news here was saying that it was an internal mechanical problem. I haven’t heard anyone talking about it here at all. Maybe it’s my neighborhood, or who I’m talking to, but life in my area hasn’t even blinked. My friends in the US, on the other hand, are practically calling a four alarm fire. I’ve gotten multiple messages and chat boxes asking what the atmosphere is like here. Apparently this is huge news back home. I don’t think people here are shocked, or even that interested, in the antics of the northern neighbor.
One of my military friends pointed out a feature in the skyline that I had noticed, but hadn’t thought about before. The tops of a lot of the high rise apartment buildings in the Seoul area, and even in my neighborhood in Incheon, are flat. I thought maybe it was solar technology or something, but I’ve been informed that they are actually helicopter landing pads. Whether for military or hospital use, I guess it depends on what’s going on at the time.
So on Saturday, while I was not being worried in the least about N. Korea, I went downtown to finally see the Steve McCurry exhibit at Sejong Center For the Arts. You know, the famous National Geographic cover “Unguarded Moment” of the young Afghani girl with the green eyes. That is just one of a truly amazing body of work from Afghanistan, Burma, Nepal, India, and an unbelievable photo from 9/11. It is kind of astounding that one of the world’s best photographers happened to be there at that moment to catch the essence of the tragedy.
There was a family of Americans behind me for most of the time I was in the museum and they were the classic example of why some Koreans don’t like foreigners. They were loud, obnoxious, and loudly presented their opinion on every piece with no regard for the fact that the museum was extremely crowded. The mom kept walking up to the placards, looking at the location of each photo, and then declaring it loudly in a tone of voice meant to convey that she knew the exact location of each photo by sight, not because she had rushed up to read it before the rest of her family got there. I finally managed to wiggle away from them and realized the photos were causing tears to come to my eyes, not the piercing sound of that woman’s voice.
There is a huge difference between my experiences as a child growing up in rural Maine with miles of woods to satisfy my whims, and rivers, streams, and of course the Ocean, to inspire the imagination. My students here grow up in a concrete jungle and even forays into nature in Korea are highly controlled and manicured. I think Seoul makes some good efforts to add some natural elements to one of the largest cities in the world, and the kiddos were taking full advantage during the rain on Saturday. I did find my adult mind wondering how their moms were going to get them home sopping wet on the subway.
I decided to take advantage of the handy-dandy little poll making thing that wordpress has. Sorry about the period instead of the question mark at the end of the poll question, but I’m not willing to recreate the poll to change it.
In a standard baby hissy fit, the republican party has decided to disallow Senate hearings. Senate hearings are allowed while the senate is in session due to a generally unanimous agreement that has long bee upstanding. In a hissy fit, the party of hell no has decided that no senate hearings will be held while they feel jilted over the health care bill.
Ironically, one of the meetings they shut down was on North Korean security, which military officials from Korea and Hawaii had flown in for. I’m finding it interesting that the very next day, a matter of possible security happened. Although, now it is being said that the explosion in the South Koran Navy ship was possibly caused by a flock of birds, and not a North Korean missile. Let’s hope the S. Korean navy people who are still missing are found safely, and that the U.S. republican party gets their head out of the asses and learns how to do something constructive, and not just destructive.
All told, the Great Wall of China is 6,259.6 km (3,889.5 mi) long. Started in the 5th Century BC, it is actually a series of walls and trenches interwoven with the natural landscape that also uses rivers and mountains to create barriers. One of the surprising things in visiting the wall was how low the actual walls are, espeically compared to the gorgeous, rolling mountains that surrounded the area we visited. It seemed those mountains would be more of a barrier than the actual wall. I believe the intermittent fortresses where more the point than most of the wall itself.
We had originally signed up for a typical great wall tour before leaving Korea. They changed our pick-up time to six am, and feeling that was a little excessive, on a tip from a Spanish backpacker staying at our hostel, we signed up for the “Secret Wall Tour” offered by the Emperor Guesthouse instead. This was archaeologist heaven. While our counterparts were getting harrassed by venders, and hiking up completely reconstructed pieces of the wall renovated for the purpose of attracting tourists, we were hiking around on the original wall with a delightful 73 year old guide. He didn’t speak a word of English, but was very effective at demonstrating where the good areas to relieve your bladder might be.
We left Beijing at 7:30 for a little over two hour drive to the location. At some point the mini-van driver pulled over in the middle of nowhere and started honking the horn. This was quite confusing to us, as he inched along the road, honking and looking around. There were donkeys passing us, fresh air like I haven’t breathed in months, and suddenly a very small, very happy looking old man bounded out of a corn field seemingly from nowhere. With a loud “Ni Hao” and a wave, we met our tour guide.
Besides our tour group, the only other people we saw on the hike were some local folks out for a stroll. Our tour guide never seemed short of breath, never took a sip of water, and raced ahead of our chubby foriegn rears on every stretch. In other words, he put us to shame. Interestingly, our tour group, except for one great, chatty, Swedish dude, was all English teachers living in Korea on vacation for Choesok. We had a good time comparing our experiences and ranking the most common question I hear in Korea, “So are you going to sign on for another year?” It was interesting to hear people’s varying opinions based on where they are stationed and who they work for.
We ran into a group of early college students on a field trip. They were ecstatic to see us and we ended up spending quite a long time posing for pictures and chatting in basic English. I can’t tell you how many times in China local folks asked us to please come teach in China when they found out we were working in Korea. I’m very seriously considering a job in Beijing for next year.
Our tour ended back at our tour guide’s village where a delightful, largely vegetarian lunch was waiting for us.
This was a pretty good month. I’m almost getting back into the swing of things. Lots of travel stories, some book club choices, and the final instalment of Harry Potter.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Societyby Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, who died before the book was published.
I wasn’t sure about this book at first. I wasn’t sure I could keep the characters straight. I thought at first it was going to be stuffy and over-rated. But by the end I was completely won over, even to the point where Guernsey Island, an occupied island during WWII, seems like a place everyone should visit at some point. When I was finished I wanted to start it over again because I’m sure there is stuff I missed in the beginning before I figured out who was who. Read for the Bookleaves bookclub.
Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for Women Who Are Changing the World by Holly Morris
I really enjoyed this book, although it was clear it was written to try to fund the Adventure Diva enterprise, which is a multi-media mother-daughter team who travel the world looking to interview women who are true “adventure divas.” They have an interesting website, including (pricey) tours that you can go on with them.
Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad
A wonderful little collection of really well thought out essays on what it means to live in a country other than your home. One thing I really liked about it is that it was essays by women I’ve never heard of. Sometimes reading essay collections from authors who you already love can get tedious (as I often find the pieces seem like they are throw-aways that didn’t get published elsewhere, but by shear force of the author’s name can still make money).
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguiseby Ruth Reichl
I had never even heard of Ruth Reichl and didn’t know that she is an extremely famous food writer, restaurant critic, and editor of Gourmet magazine. This book was fantastic, funny, interesting, and intrigued me on a subject I’ve never been the least bit interested in. This book in particular deals with her need to create disguises so that she could go into a restaurant and be treated like a regular customer and not as herself. The two experiences proved to be vastly different dining, and gave her chance to see how much of New York is really just for the show.
Burnt Shadows: A Novel
Talking about this book at the Seoul Women’s Bookclub brought teary eyes around the table. I had to remind myself several times that the characters in this book are not real. They almost all could have been people that we’ve met on our travels.
I just found this picture on SquidLit blog. I was having a hard time imagining what the “tattooed” burns looked like, when women in the blast were wearing white kimono that had a dark pattern on it, that got inlayed in their skin.
“She didn’t know how to behave around these people – the rich and powerful, a number of whom had asked her about the samurai way of life and thought she was being charmingly self-effacing when she said the closest she had come to the warrior world was her days as a worker at the munitions factory. Two years after the war they could accept an ally of Hitler sooner than they could accept someone of a different class, she thought, and wished she had entered India in a manner that would have allowed her into the houses of those that lived in Delhi’s equivalent of Urakami.”
– Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Jim’s grandfather was stationed in South Korea in the late 1940s, right before the outbreak of the Korean War. He was stationed in Yeosu, a then almost nonexistent, and now still small coastal town on the south end of Korea. I learned from a friend that Jeju Island was a stronghold of communist support, sandwiching the mainland between themselves and what is now North Korea. This may be a possible reason for why so many folks were stationed along the southern coast.
We had a long weekend away from the hagwon, and decided to take a trip south. Not just any trip, no, no, we ventured on Jim’s motorcycle all the way from Incheon. Well Jim, did anyway. He left on Friday morning, and as I had to teach Friday, I caught a bus to Gwangju.
Since I don’t work for a public school, and have almost no vacation time for this entire year, the unexpected opportunity to take a long weekend was too much to pass up. Being the kind of adventurer I am though, I always try to fit in too much. My original plan to meet a couple of friends in Dangjin for drinks was foiled by the fact that a huge percentage of the country also had this weekend off, which left me with no train or bus tickets to anywhere I needed to go. I was at the bus station, wondering what the hell to do, when I finally got in touch with Jim, who had been riding his motorcycle all day. He was close to Gwangju, and wonders abound, it was the only bus with any spots left that night at the terminal. I bought a ticket, checked with the guidebook since I really had no idea where Gwangju was, and settled in for a four hour bus ride that started at 11pm.
Since there was no way Jim and I were going to find each other, when I got to Gwanju, I just found a motel and passed out. When Jim called the next morning, it turned out he wasn’t that close to Gwanju, and I needed to entertain myself for a few hours. See, this is where I get myself in trouble. Open the guide book, see what there is in the area – ah, Mudeungsan Mountain, that sounds like fun. I hopped a bus in the right direction, keep an eye out for the Wonhyosa temple entrance, and I’m off.
The bus took a long route up a winding mountain, and it turned out I didn’t need to watch too closely as the Wonhyosa temple was the last stop on the bus line.
Jim called, and was still a while away, so I decided to take a walk up the mountain trail. This is where I really got in trouble. Not wearing good shoes, with a shoulder bag full of books and clothes, but the never ending desire to get a few good pics and a decent hike in, I struck out on a path that said it was headed to another temple, where supposedly I could catch another bus. All would have been well and good, except that I fell twice on my already fragile knees, making for slow hiking, and when I got 9/10ths of the way to the temple – straight downhill almost 3 miles, the trail was washed out and a giant fence was put up to prevent people from trying to scramble around. I looked up the mountain, it was physically impossible for me to get back up that mountain at this point. My knees were a mess, I had no water, and the really crappy Chinese I had for breakfast was long burned up. There was a little path to the right that was my only bet, but I didn’t have the slightest idea where it went.
Jim calls again, “I’m in Gwangju.” Well, that’s great, but I’m lost in the woods.
After much walking, slipping once again and getting chastised by an old Korean man for my poor choice in hiking foot attire, I found my way to an entrance to the park and another bus stop. As is pretty common, none of the bus stop signs were in English, so I just had to get on a bus and hope it was headed toward Gwangju. Luckily it was, and although I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the station, I was able to get into town and then take a taxi to the bus station.
On the bike, 22 to 17 south.
Yeosu is nothing like what it was fifty years ago. Although it is still a fishing town surrounded by rice fields and farms, it has fallen into the concrete pattern of the rest of the country. One thing that strikes me here are some of the places that food is grown. You will see corn plants right up the road, with no break or ditch like there would be at home. Squash and melon plants are spilling onto the streets and hanging off roofs where they are grown on sheets of plastic lined with dirt.
There are several islands off of Yeosu, and a road that connects them all. Well, almost. When we passed over the first bridge, I was thinking it looked suspiciously new. Sure enough, half way through the first island, and the road ends in a corn field. Development is so fast here that roads that are still “to be built” are labeled as real roads on the map, because it would be pointless to update maps every time a chunk of asphalt is put in. The geography of Korea changes constantly. A country that was once completely leveled and deforested is now 90% re-forested and covered in amazingly lush mountains top to bottom.
We turned back around and decided to try and take the road around the islands from the other direction and see if we could get any further. We pulled off onto a road that said it had a temple on it. A long, winding, partially paved, hole-filled road. At the end, it just looked like a row of dilapidated buildings. Just as we were about to pull away, a very excited woman calls out in English, “Oh please come up!!” She saw Jim’s Ohio State t-shirt and was immediately ecstatic over seeing a couple of fellow Americans. She is a Korean woman who emigrated to New York over thirty years ago, and had come back to Korea to reconnect with family and her roots.
As we came up the stairs, we could see what we couldn’t see from the road. This was indeed a giant temple, complete with retreat cabins, giant statues, and a huge temple shrine. Twenty years ago a lone monk decided he wanted to start a temple in this gorgeous location, and set out raising money on his own.
What struck me was how much the area looked like the Maine coast. Pine trees and mountains that come right up to the ocean. Some of the pics here could be confused for pics I took living in Bar Harbor.
Chong, our new Korean-American friend, went out of her way to ask the resident monk if he would mind meeting us. He invited us in for tea. This is why I came to Korea, to meet monks and hang out in temples. He was wonderfully gracious and talked to us for a couple of hours. He even gave us a meditation lesson, and gave me homework. Chong said he gave me homework because he wants to see me again. I asked if I could come back to do a retreat and he told me if I practice, I can come anytime, but if I don’t practice meditation, he will know. It was great, and one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Chong said she wasn’t even planning to come to this temple when she first came, she did like we did and just visited on a whim – and then never left. She’s been studying there for a year and plans to stay for two more.
The monk also said that if any foreigners are interested in coming as a group for a retreat, he would be really interested in teaching it, so if you are interested, we can coordinate, and I will contact them about having a group receive a teaching.
The hardest part of the trip was getting back. We made it the entire length of the country in a few hours, and then spent the same amount of time just getting from Seoul to Bucheon. It made me wish we lived somewhere like Gongju where we would be close enough to Seoul to bus in, but far enough away to enjoy the country.
The bike getting a rest from our butts, or our butts getting a rest from the bike. I’m not sure which.
Filed under: Travel, Politics, War, Peace, economics, Korea | Tags: DMZ Korea
The Demilitarized Zone tour, or DMZ as it is known, was one of the more interesting things I’ve done since being in Korea on many levels: at once a cultural event, an educational event about a hotspot for violence in the world, and an interesting look into how two countries are shaping their own history and public information.
It was also a chance to be around the type of foreigners that I’ve avoided since coming to Korea – the loud ones that think the whole bus needs to be regaled with their tales of drunkenness, sexual excursions, how various penises from around the world compare, and all the things Koreans do wrong. This in turn led us to make friends with two of the very cool type of foreigners who agreed that the other type were being way too loud and ruining our view.
For anyone back home who might not be aware, the DMZ is a swath of land bordered on both sides by a fence and razor wire, that divides North and South Korea. No one has been allowed onto this skinny piece of land that runs the entire width of the Korean peninsula for fifty years, and they claim it has become a haven for wildlife. Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of the tour were the parts we were not allowed to take pictures of.
First we stopped at Unification Park, where the fact that South Korea has turned this into a huge tourist venture is blatantly obvious. People from all over the world, including Koreans, come to the boarder in droves to glimpse a little of the insanity that is North Korea, and also to pay homage to the fact that eventually they may be a unified country again. They’ve gone as far as to build a theme park to keep the kiddies happy, and the start of a “bridge” that may one day join the two countries – an enormous steel structure that at the moment is truly a bridge to nowhere.
Our first stop after joining the larger tour was the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This was truly fascinating, and unfortunately we couldn’t take pics in the inside of the tunnel. South Korea has found four tunnels, the latest in 1990, that are assumed to built by NK to be used to tunnel in ground support for an air strike on South Korea. They believe there may be more tunnels that have yet to be found – yet another case were geologists and archaeologists may be of help – Jim and I were talking about how if they did a survey of the border with a resistivity machine, they’d find out pretty quick if there were more tunnels or not. I had a feeling that the threat of more tunnels might actually just be being used to keep people concerned.
One of the more interesting facts about the tunnels is that the North Koreans smudged them with coal and tried to claim that they were coal mines that went too far underground and “accidentally” made it over the border. Anyone who has worked in coal country doing survey knows this is utter BS. First of all, coal exists in layers (as it is formed by compression of layers of organic material over a long period of time), which is why strip mining is so popular. You need to strip off a broad swath to get the most coal; skinny tunnels would not be effective at all. The other reason is that the area is mostly granite, not a place where coal layers are likely to be found.
It is said that the North Korean government told its people that South Korea actually built the tunnels to infiltrate North Korea and ruin their society with their filthy westernized ways. One interesting thing about the video we saw before going into the tunnels is that it makes almost no mention of the American, British, or Soviet involvement with WWII and the Korean war. It shows footage of the two different factions of Koreans, calling it a “fratricidal” war – almost implying that no one else was involved.
The closest thing I could get to a tunnel shot, was an outside shot of where the recently bored new tunnel was constructed to join with the actual Infiltration tunnel so that tourists could go down into it. It is thirty meters underground and we had to wear hardhats – this is all getting very familiar. Don’t forget your PPE! (If you don’t get it, don’t worry, it’s an inside joke.)
We moved on to the observation tower – and lucked out with having a gorgeous day with a great shot of the North Korean mountains, and a “city.” Apparently when North Korea became aware that this observation tower had been built, and tourists were coming to view this area, they promptly built a fake city to prove that North Korea is doing well and prospering. Someone comes to switch on and off the lights, but no one really lives there. You could really tell, to me it looked like one of those pre-fab midwestern towns where the Home Depot has been built, the townhouses are up, but no one has actually lived there yet. There is something so distinctive about the traces that humans leave, that I think we can really tell if no one has ever lived there even if it is made to look on the contrary. We were not allowed to take pics of this town either (or the map of the area inside the building).
The last stop was a blatant piece of overly optimistic propaganda. With the money raised from tourism, there has been an entire subway station built right at the border, complete with destination Pyeongyang, North Korea. It claims with absolute certainty that when North Korea collapses and is once again unified with South Korea, that the train line will eventually join with the Trans-Siberian, and Trans-China lines. We were even able to use a “commemerative stamp” to stamp our tour books and prove we had been there. Scrap-booking is apparenlty alive and well everywhere. There were also large photos of when Bush came to the opening of this station, declaring his support for the unification of the peninsula.
Although these are nice sentiments, is South Korea really willing to take on the financial, social, and political burden of bringing a populace of brain-washed people, who have a standard of living one hundred years behind the rest of the world, who truly believe that if you touch something western your hand could fall off, up to South Korean consumerist standards? (There was even some discussion that maybe they are looking at North Korea as a possibility for really cheap labor – a job now farmed out to Burmese, Pakastani, and Nepali folks. Using North Koreans would have the advantage of the people speaking at least some form of Korean.) There was a windowless building next to the station, that the tour guide noted that she was required to tell us was a storage unit for goods from the area. She was implying that that is not at all what it is, and more likely, I’m assuming it is probably a weapons cache or some such.
Of course there are also North Korean refugees who just really want to see their home again before they die. All along the border there were old ladies wearing pink and praying along the fences. To me they were a much bigger sign of hope than subway stations that go nowhere. At the end of the day, what people are willing to do for each other is really what matters the most.
All in all, it was a fascinating, thumbs-up day.
For anyone that cares, we used Grace Travel 02-332-8946. 48,000 won, but it does not take you to Pannumjeon – where the US and North Korean soldiers stand and stare at each other. We’ll save that for another time.