Monday, August 2, 2010

Smile! You're Traveling. (part 2)

So! My adventures in the deep south of South Korea... I wanted to kill off all my coursework and find a suitable backpack for day trips before I left town, so I didn't end up heading for Tongyeong until the Tuesday of my vacation week. In Masan I had to take two cabs to the express bus station because apparently there are two types of express bus stations in Korea (inter-province and intercity, or something along those lines) and I only knew the word for the wrong type. Some day I would really like to gain a functional use of this language, although I'm still constantly amazed by how many social functions a guy can manage to get through using only "Hello" and "Thank you." (It's kind of like being Chauncey Gardner in Being There.)

With some help from a tourist map and the Lonely Planet Korea Country Guide I started exploring Tongyeong from the Gangguan Port. I wandered up to the nearby sculpture park, then hiked over to the ferry terminal to check out island excursions and the possibility of grabbing a ferry instead of a bus to Geoje-do. After that I wandered over to the lauded Undersea Tunnel, which turned out to be about as exciting as walking through a concrete tunnel. (The picture on the tourist map made it look like it had windows or aquariums or something, but those turned out to be backlit signs.) From there I caught a bus over to the Hallyeosudo View Cable Car. I should note at this point that it was somewhere in the mid-thirties with high humidity (that's Celsius for all you Yanks - look up the conversion yourselves) while I was doing all this walking and since I was almost constantly carrying all my luggage on my back I was pretty much drenched in sweat all day every day. Now I understand why Korean hikers always where those polyester day-glo jerseys everywhere - cotton never dries. Anyway, for some reason, despite the fact that I was a damp sponge with a daypack at this point, I decided to hike down from Hallyeosudo instead of taking the cable car back. I would also like to mention at this point that the Korean approach to hiking trails is somewhat different from standard American practices. For example, most Americans forging a trail up or down a mountain would make a longer, less steep trail with a series of switchbacks. The standard Korean practice is, shall we say, a little more straightforward. In short, I found myself on a narrow, muddy trail (there must have been a stream or spring that infiltrated it at some point) mostly made of a series of loose boulders that had been tossed together to make a sort of uneven staircase. Hard on the thighs on the way up, tough on the knees on the way down - not to mention dicey when you're wearing a daypack, walking on wet rocks without a walking stick or pole and you're a little bit dehydrated. Strangely, when I emerged from the trail and hit a gravel road at the bottom I was greeted by a roadside collection of middle-aged Koreans on exercise equipment who were nice enough to point me towards Yonghwasa Temple. There's a surprise around every corner. Dynamic Korea.

I hopped a bus towards the excursion boats terminal because I thought that was where the ferries to nearby islands left from, but on the way there I ran into a local teacher from Canada who explained that they actually leave from the terminal back on the other side of the inlet that I had visited earlier in the day. I ran into her again at the nearby Tongyeong public beach, which turned out to be kind of a bust because I couldn't find any lockers for my pack and I didn't want to leave it anywhere to go into the water. (From my guidebook I had thought I could find a hotel nearby to leave it at, but again I had fallen victim to confusing the two ferry terminals.) Of course I didn't make any friendly effort to suggest to the teacher that we could meet up again or that I should get her contact info, but let's face it, that would be out of character. Instead I ended up catching a bus back to the other ferry terminal, found a yeogwan (backpacker's hotel), showered, looked for food, wussed out and got a burger at Lotteria, went back to the hotel and turned in early so I could catch an early ferry. I could have gone out but I was exhausted from all the walking I had done and my groin was regretting that I didn't pack any Gold Bond so I wasn't in the mood to paint the town red. Most of what was around the ferry terminal looked like love motels and seedy noraebang anyway. (More on Korean nightlife for the solo traveler in the Gohyeon segment.)

The guidebook said Yeonhwa-do was the must-see island in Tongyeong but my local acquaintance had mentioned that Bijin-do had the best beach. I felt a lot more like floating in the ocean that doing any more hiking so I hopped the early morning ferry to Bijin-do on the morning of day two. Almost didn't get off in time because I didn't quite understand the urgency of the disembarkation announcement. Once I arrived on Bijin-do I pretty quickly decided that I had made the right choice. The island is actually two islands connected by a sand bar and a strip of rocks, and if you were ever looking for a place to get away from it all and lie on the beach, Bijin-do is the place to do it. I only wish that I had know that there are a scant handful of hotels there or I would have tried to make reservations to stay the night. First order of business was to find breakfast. As I alluded to earlier, traveling in Korea is a little strange for a solo backpacker and one of the reasons is the food. Koreans like to go out to eat in big groups so a lot of restaurants don't have an extensive a la carte menu. Also the dish of choice by the ocean tends to be raw fish - big piles of all types of raw sea life served with kochujang, a type of soy paste and hot pepper sauce - and a $20 plate of raw fish really didn't appeal to me as a good way to start the day. Besides, I had enjoyed piles of the stuff in Namhae and I wasn't sure it was a good idea to jump back into it (especially without some soju to kill any possible bacteria). I ended up ordering a $8 set menu of broiled fish, soup and enough side dishes for a group of four. But getting a chance to float in the ocean and sit on the beach reading on a tiny island more than made up for any misgivings about breakfast. (By the way, if you're a working class stiff looking for a way to get ahead in a strange foreign country and you're looking for some good beach reading from a complete misanthrope who travels the world looking for a way to get ahead, you can't go wrong with Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night.)

Back in Tongyeong I grabbed some chungmu kimbap for lunch, which was not nearly as can't-miss as the guidebook had suggested. (Squid, pressed fish paste and daikon radish kimchi? Who cares if it's a well-known local dish, honestly?) I then started hopping buses to get to Goeje-do, a large island not too far east of Tongyeong. I wasn't too sure what I was going to do when I got there, but by the time I got to the bus station in Gohyeon it was nightfall and threatening rain - plus I was drenched in perspiration again - so I found a motel and checked in, figuring I would sample the local nightlife. Now, a funny thing about traveling in Korea is that a majority of the affordable lodging, which tends to be clustered around bus and train stations and ferry terminals, is what the locals call "love motels." These motels are infamous in Korea as places where couples - some married, some fooling around, some involved in an exchange of currency for services - come to, shall we say, fuck. The locals are somewhat embarrassed by how widespread the phenomenon is - and since everything is so packed together here there's no way to shove them all into some poorly-traveled back-alley -  but it's become such a part of the social fabric that they're generally grudgingly accepted. (I ran into a teacher at a private language academy who had a class discussion about the necessity of love motels, and one of the "pro" arguments from his Korean adult students was along the lines of "we need a place to go where the kids can't hear us screwing." Korean families tend to live in fairly compact apartments.) The hotels tend to be clean, comfortable, fairly well-maintained and inexpensive, so they've become dual-purposed by travelers as well as tryst-ers, as long as said travelers don't require a family-friendly environment free from niceties like condoms and business cards from prostitutes. The one I stayed at in Gohyeon was fairly low-key other than the mood lighting and the free pornography on TV. Let me take this opportunity to tell you all about Korean pornographic videos. Now I've seen some fairly unusual pornography in my day (by accident, of course) but Korean porn is something else. They don't seem to be able to show genitalia, penetration, or all that other good stuff that's in run-of-the-mill hardcore pornography, but they still seem to have a taste for the type of rape fantasies and inappropriate sexual advances that you sometimes see in Japanese movies and porn (that I've seen by accident). So imagine naked couples going though all sorts of contortions to simulate sex in positions that don't visually serve up any wiener or taco, but also scenes of a guy molesting a sleeping girl on a bus and similar fare. Well, I guess if anyone wanted to argue that morality is a social construct, there's your evidence in full, poorly-lit color.

(I started using this Amazon Associates monetizing gimmick in this post for no good reason... I wonder if Amazon sells any Korean pornography I could link to?)

After a quick shower I decided to hit the town in Gohyeon and see what was up. Most of what was around the bus station was once again bars, love motels, PC bangs (internet cafes) and noraejujeom. Once I asked an acquaintance of mine back in my town, who I've been helping on and off with her English (no, that's not a euphemism for anything), to explain the difference between a noraebang (karaoke room) and a noraejujeom while we were walking past one in town. She started by saying, "Well, it's a singing bar... Usually they have... hostess girls..." That was the point where I changed the subject since I realized I might be asking a female acquaintance to explain something unseemly to me. The funny thing about smut and vice in Korea is that it all seems to be out in the open yet behind closed doors. I guess it's all part of that whole public "face" thing - out of sight, out of mind. Being here you hear all sorts of rumors about goings-on in coffee shops and barbershops with two poles, and trips with co-workers that start at a noraebang and end at a brothel. (Luckily my co-teachers and dedicated family men so I've never had to deal with the embarrassment of that scenario, thank Christ.) As a foreigner, though, when you pass a nightclub or a noraejujeom with silhouettes of female bodies or a light-up inflatable column ad with a scantily-dressed young girl on it, you don't know whether it's actually some sort of cat house or burlesque, or if they're just selling karaoke or nightclubbing with sex. Generally, to be safe, I always assume the formal and keep my distance. Besides, everything in Korea is a group activity, including brothels from what I hear, and if a lone foreigner or small group of waegooks wander into a brothel here they supposedly immediately get the crossed-hands "X" sign from the old lady behind the counter and get sent away. (At least that's what I've heard about the red light strip in Daegu, but I don't even know where it is.) As a side note, the light-up balloon signs outside the noraejujeom in Goheyon all had pictures of the same young girl in a bikini, and on a lot of them people had burned cigarette holes in the girl's eyes and delicate areas. C'mon, guys, that sort of thing just ain't right.

(I hope that if my co-workers ever find this blog and figure out who I am, it's not a worse offense to talk about the goings-on of the sex industry than to indulge in it...)

I had passed a bar in Gohyeon that advertised itself as a "Western Beer Bar" so I decided to check it out. They wouldn't let me sit at the empty bar so they put me at a table for eight by myself. The beer was all either  overpriced or piss, or both (they were out of Sam Adams and the only Canadian beer was Moosehead... and who the fuck imports Genesee beer to Asia, fer chrissakes??!?!) so I polished off two as the rest of the bar filled up with groups of Koreans together in their tight-knit groups. As I said, traveling solo in Korea is not easy. When it came time to pay the check I couldn't even get the staff's attention - I was close to just leaving the cash on the bar without receiving the bill and walking out. After that I decided to give up, go to a PC bang and play World of Warcraft to kill the evening (yes, I am a nerd, get over it) but I couldn't get my American account to load up on a Korean computer. So I turned in early again and decided to get a jump start on the morning.

I was too sunburned to go back to the beach and didn't feel too much like hiking so I got on a bus and found my way to Geoje Haegeumgang, a rock outcropping off the coast of the southeast corner of the island. Geoje Haegeumgang is apparently Korean National Scenic Site #2, which makes me wonder even more how this whole Korean compulsion to rank order historic sites and treasures really works. When I was at the National Museum in Seoul there were several displays of pottery and other historical artifacts that were presented right next to each other, like, "This vase from the Three Kingdoms period is National Treasure #119. That means it's better than whatever #120 is but not quite as nice as whatever #118 is. This nearly identical vase next to it... well, it's just OK." I guess it's possible that the one vase belonged to some king and the other one belonged to some schmuck, but still, how do they decide on the exact order? Regardless, when I arrived at Geoje Haegeumgang I was impressed with just how unimpressive a rock outcropping it was and how little of it I could see due to the morning mist. Undaunted, I jumped on a ferry boat to get a closer look.

There were some crabs on it. That was kind of cool.

When the boat landed at the wharf someone handed me a note that said "1:35". I didn't understand what I would possibly have to do at 1:35, and when I tried to ask someone about it in broken Korean, apparently what I said was understood as "It's 1:35?" rather than "What's at 1:35?" since the only answer I got was "Yes." When I got off the boat, I realized that we were not back at shore like I had thought - we were at Oe-do, and 1:35 was the time to come back to the boat. Well, how about that. Oe-do is a small island of manicured flower gardens and Greek revival columns. I was going to skip it, as a certain guidebook I copiously pimped earlier had described it as boring, but as it turns out it was the best part of my trip to Geoje-do. The walk around the island was an enjoyable constitutional (despite the daypack, 30-plus degree heat, humidity and copious perspiration I mentioned earlier) and the gardens were truly something to see, especially if you're packing any sort of camera. There were also some sculptures that could only be described as "naked babies wrestling." (I'd post photos but I dropped six rolls of film off at the photo shop last week and they're still not done. Oh, Dynamic Korea, how I love you and your cute little quirks sometimes.) I also saw a lot of nice beaches in Geoje-do from the bus on my way back to the express bus terminal in Jangseungpo, but I didn't have the time or energy to stop. Maybe next time.

So all in all it was a good trip, and it was nice to get out of my tiny town, get some sand between my toes and take in some more Korea. I never made it to the Pohang fireworks festival because I ended up having to catch up on my coursework and somehow I got an intense stomachache right before the last train I could catch to get to Pohang in time. Summer lessons have actually been a lot of fun - even though it's a new lesson plan every day, the classes are smaller and shorter and I have more leeway to make them fun and informal. This week all the lessons are about movies and I'm hoping to do a short video with the kids by the end of the week. After summer school at my school and one week of English camp at a nearby elementary school I get another three days off, and I should be heading to Jeju-do to see what all the hype is about.

OK, it's 1:40 in the morning and the only good reason to be up this late is if I'm playing Starcraft II with my old college buddies in America, which is not what I'm doing right now. I'm going to bed. Blogging takes too fucking long.

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