I was there on the Seoul metro, listening to Iron & Wine because it was the least Seoul-metro music I could think of. I was hoping to be overground again, anywhere else. This isn’t an indictment of the Seoul metro system, which is excellent, with its sprawling stations, vast, broad platforms and airport-style conveyer belts to ferry you about wherever. It’s just that I’ve been ill (cough, whimper), and when I’m feeling rough, being trapped in a tin can under the Earth with strangers is about as welcome as brunch with Iain Duncan Smith. In downtown Aleppo.
All that coughing and sneezing’s been messing with my plans, so I’m gonna drop the usual day-by-day narrative format. It’s been cramping my style anyway. Instead, I’ll give you some thoughts from the second section of my Korea journey. I’ll pick up on Seoul again next time, though, because Seoul is a lot.
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Juggernauts and Sad Singers
You don’t hear that much western pop as you walk around South Korea, as my recurring travelling buddy Vasilyy pointed out. That’s true, actually, although you do occasionally hear a familiar tune repurposed with Korean lyrics. It could be I Will Survive, or something from Les Mis. More often, you hear original k-pop.
The K-pop juggernaut is something I’ve previously only vaguely observed from a distance, like a safari park attendant sitting on a tree stump drinking a café latte as a disgruntled rhino paces in the background. So it was a bit of a shock to find the rhino bearing down on me at speed, kicking up a dust storm. Roughly, that’s how I felt in the k-pop museum in Gyeongju. I couldn’t meaningfully know less about k-pop, and I was dropped into a world of bizarre costumes, confusing band line-ups, and hundreds of names I’ve never heard of. I was so out of my depth. Head swimming, I gave up on trying to absorb the details of the information overload before me, and settled on absorbing the vague feelings instead.
So, from listening to samples, I could pick up something of the sunny, copy-anybody world of the sixties, and how it was replaced by the sad, soulful, lo-fi protest folk of the seventies. The ’80s were unlistenably boring for me, all ballads and plod-rock, but something started to come into focus in the 1990s. What emerged after that was this impossible, slick, 500-synths-and-flashing-strobe-lights killer robot of a music industry, full of giant bands that change their rosters every month, and dizzying dance routines. I still don’t know much about k-pop, but now I know how it feels- sort of like dancing lobsters clinging to your face and inserting electrodes into random segments of brain. I have developed a fondness for the sorrow-folk of the seventies, though, written as it was at great personal cost to some of its protagonists. Props to Han Daesu and Lee Pil-Won.
Off The Charts, Scoville
As we keep establishing, I’m not an expert. But if you drew a word cloud of Korean food, I feel like the words ‘spicy’, ‘noodle’ and ‘soup’ alone would cover a football field. I’ve had a few variants of spicy noodle soup in the last few days, each of them simmered in a lake of fire with some blend of sliced chili peppers, chili oil and chili powder. Sometimes with dumplings. My favourite was a local spot in Gangneung which offered what was basically noodle minestrone with rich, earthy mushrooms. Albeit sans noodles, a spicy seafood porridge was particularly fiery.
At a market in Seoul, I tried a Korean fast food favourite, bbindaetteok, which are made from mung bean sprouts, ferns, and seasonings, fried up with sesame oil and often served with soy sauce. They’re not the most flavorful food, but certainly comforting to eat. The Korean government has plans to export them as the next fad food, in the name of bigging up ‘Brand Korea’. But I really fell for hotteok, hot sweet pancakes filled with honey, cinnamon and seeds. Honey dripped on my t-shirt; whatever, I don’t care. They’re certain to burn your mouth, but it’s massively worth it. In fact, I like Korea’s inventive sweet food in general, from honey-ice cream scooped into sweet pastry, to sweet almond cake with fried egg!
Oh, and Korea is fucking serious about barbecue. Japanese people like to eat meat, but Korean restaurants like to pile up a pyramid of sticky, glazed fried chicken in front of you and dare you to jump into it. I’m exaggerating, but really not that much! Barbecue is not my life calling, but if it’s yours, you should probably forget about Oz and move to Korea. For my part, I’m already feeling a bit guilty about the ocean-cleansing size of Gangneung’s Jumunjin Fish Market, where I bought some dried fish: the barbecue onslaught brought back some painful reminders of my lapsed vegetarianism. I miss vegan burritos. Someday I’m gonna save the planet, I promise.
When I found out that one of Korea’s few sixteenth century houses can be seen in Gangneung, I felt like I needed to go. Ojukheon was home to a famous calligrapher and writer, Shim Saimdang, who you can see on the 50,000 won note. She gave birth to her son, the equally famous Yi I Yulgok, in the ‘dragon room’ of the house.
Although two celebrated figures lived there, the house was tiny, just two rooms decorated with formal art and with the works of ancient writers. There were a few extra rooms in an adjacent building where family and servants stayed, but nobody here was living in luxury, even if the lush gardens outside were as well-tended back then.
Only on the way home did I start thinking: why? Why is Ojukheon one of the few sixteenth-century houses in Korea? In my hometown there’s a bunch of Tudor relics lyin’ about. In Japan, a lot of the destruction can be explained by fire, and that’s partly true here. Gyeongbokgung Palace, for example, burnt down in the hugely destructive Imjin War (1592-1598). However, Koreans built in stone and brick far more than the Japanese did, and so their fires were less common, and less universally destructive. It’s not the whole story.
Surely, colonialism is part of the story. Of over 70,000 Korean treasures or important items which are currently out of the country, it’s been estimated that 46% are in Japan. The colonial government actively destroyed and looted swathes of Korea’s heritage, just like the British did in China and elsewhere. The Second World War and the Korean War each burnt, bombed and razed cities, in a country with little money for rebuilding.
Later, when Korea was modernizing, a lot of people didn’t think all those impoverished, old buildings were worth protecting. An author I’ve been reading argued that Korea developed ‘neophilia’, an obsession with casting off the old and owning the newest of everything. I can’t give a definite opinion, but I will say this: you see shiny new cars everywhere, and everyone has the latest smartphone. Korea makes plenty of amazing modern architecture, like the undulating City Hall or the various boutiques of Hongdae. But a lot’s been destroyed to get there. In time, some people have come round to the beauty of the old places, and hopefully that movement will swell before it’s too late.
The World is Quiet Here
For such a breakneck trip through a dozen cities, I’ve found a surprising amount of serenity on my travels. On Wednesday, the day that children born on 9/11 turned old enough to vote, me and Vasilyy climbed Inwangsan. The rocky hilltop is in the heart of Seoul, but it could be northern California; the forest is totally different in character from Japan. Drier, with smaller, narrower. leaves, and ready for real cold in winter. We picked a really nice day for it, sun-dappled, with just a few yellowing leaves winking at the arrival of autumn. I had a hacking cough and was feeling distinctly sorry for myself, but I just about kept going.
On the top of the mountain, we sat on a rock and surveyed our new kingdom. We argued about its size and boundaries for a while. Then Vasilyy pointed out to me that despite my immediate physical condition, we’re lucky really, and I was forced to agree with him. All megacities look beautiful from above, but none of them have ever looked as still to me as Seoul did in the midday sunshine. Honestly, there was barely a flicker of movement. There were just a couple of distant planes taking off from Incheon, flying at roughly our level. We saw other views of the city, from Jeongdong Observatory and N Seoul Tower, but they couldn’t compare to the soul of Inwangsan.
Another bubble of stillness in the maze of the city is Jibokjae, the royal library of Seoul. Located in the north of Gyeongbukgung Palace complex, it’s not as grand as the main palace building, but it’s far more elegant. Nobody seems quite sure when it was built, although it was expanded with an octagonal pavilion in 1892, so… before then, I guess. The library became the centre of a desperate effort to promote both western and classical learning, protect the royal family and save Korea from being annexed by Japan (spoiler alert: it didn’t work). Nonetheless, as failures go, what a place. I could happily get lost in old stories under its high ceilings all day, and given that the collection is multi-lingual, it’s a real option. The library attendant told me with a wicked grin that it’s a ‘prison of silence’ and that the library stole his name. Perhaps I’d feel the same if I worked there every day, but I don’t know.
Building Something Big
I wish I’d spent more time with the folks at ReDo Backpackers in Gangneung. It’s honestly the most unique place I’ve stayed on this trip, a happy, faintly chaotic DIY kind of hostel and non-profit organisation which takes on volunteer travellers to keep it going. Besides the bike hanging from the ceiling an the obligatory world map, it had a decent bookshelf and a well-stocked bar, but the real selling point was a great team of international staff.
The first night, I went to a chilled house party with a few of the staff and guests, who’d travelled from all over: Colombia, Brazil, the Philippines, Germany, France… Sadly, after that, I was in the throes of sickness, and I wasn’t really in the mood to socialise in the evenings. I wish I’d got to know y’all better though, ReDo. You’re doing a good thing there.
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So much to say, and so little time to process it all into something coherent. Next time I write to you, I’ll still be talking about Seoul, and taking on weighty topics like war and peace, the existential pain of staring at pottery, shoe shopping, loneliness and Gangnam Style. Catch ya on the flip side.
Love and Peace,