Before the Turn of the Leaves

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October 1st 2008
Published: October 19th 2008
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The ferry crossing was quite rough. I lay in a half-sleep, thinking about Kobo Daishi's dangerous crossing to China by ship, and, on a personal level, of the irony of walking an 850 mile pilgrimage only to die at sea two days later. (Ever the drama queen.) It had been a good evening, though. I'd met a Finnish traveller, a monk from Detroit and a Japanese couple planning on doing the Shikoku pilgrimage. I'd also had the ferry's communal bath all to myself as I gazed out to sea, watching the last of Japan's islands disappear into the distance. I'd lived in, on and along that country for two months and this was goodbye.
On reaching South Korea's busy port city of Busan, I was so excited and impatient to meet Seth the next day that I was fit to burst. Checking in to a brilliantly questionable hotel near dodgy Texas Street, I headed out to master Busan's subway system and spent the day letting the city sink into my veins and distracting myself as much as possible from the all-too-slow ticking of the clock. I walked amongst live octopus, dead snappers, eels being skinned alive and severed pig heads in Jalguchi Fish Market. A lady with a giant perm joined me as I took a breather on the pier, and she sang me a song about pigeons in Korean. I got the feeling that S. Korea was going to be pleasingly strange. At the mountainside temple of Beomosa, I saw how different Korean Buddhist temples were from those I had seen in Japan. (Think , buildings painted in greens, blues, reds; big shining Buddha statues in the halls; 4 guardians - less fierce! - instead of two; devotees performing long rituals of bowing and prostration; lovely painted scenes on the outside walls of the buildings... it was so different it made me feel shy.) On Haeundae Beach at sunset, I watched the sky turn purple and pink over apartment blocks and hotels, and shared my tortilla chips with a club-footed pigeon. That night, I was kept awake by the thumping of the hotel nightclub and by the loud Russian who checked in next door with a giggling woman.
I could fill pages on how excellent it was to meet Seth in Seoul after two months apart, but it would be more Mills and Boon, less travel blog. Together we took on Seoul's Dongdaemun market, took tea in an excellent teahouse full of lovely junk in Insadong, saw Bongeunsa temple in the rain and got splashed in the Noryangjin Fish Market. I was glad to see the Dongdaemun (great east gate) - a relic of the days when Seoul was held within city walls - still in one piece, unlike the Namdaemun gate which had been burnt down by 'an angry pensioner', furious about a land dispute, earlier in the year (The guy had quite a track record, too, having set fire to the Changgyeong Palace two years earlier.) We had bulgogi - beef and pork strips bbq'd at your table and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves and with a peice of kimchi (pickled, spicy cabbage) thrown in there for extra crunch - and had some beers at a streetside bar in Gangnam Gu, with a nice doctor who, after a couple of strong ones, started telling in-jokes involving the periodic table, which kind of threw us off.
With just under two weeks in this non-touristy country, Seth had done his homework and had a list of places we should see. I added a couple of suggestions, but mostly took a back seat and loved not having to think too much. My brain, I guess, has become as tired as my feet, and simply demands bbq, beer and good times.
The cities were lively and bright by night, if a little dull by day, when the bins were laced with puke from late night revelling and the neon signs were lifeless and dark. In Suwon, we walked the walls of the slightly over-restored Hwaseong Fortress, with its picturesque floodgate and many watchtowers. In Dong Hae, we explored the endless rows of bars and restaurants stacked up on one another in big buildings, with odd names like 'Beer Story!' We learned how to use DVD Bang (DVD rooms; you pick a movie, bring your own popcorn, and watch it in your own private little cinema on a comfy sofa) and Norae Bang (kareoke rooms, much as in Japan except you always get a tambourine. Seth's all about Elvis and Billy Joel. As usual, I ended up screaming Livin on a Prayer into the mike.) And there was Jeonju, where the bibimbap (a rice dish topped with veg, egg and hot sauce) is as good as it is famed to be. I recommend the variation which includes strips of raw beef on top, mm-mmmm. As for the city of Daegu; if anyone has the urge to see a (rather contented) cat wearing a pair of dungarees, may I suggest a trip to downtown Daegu, near the strong smelling alleys of the herbal medicine market. Look for the shop with the pomeranian wearing a pink bow.
The towns seemed more laid back and sleepy, infused by the countryside around them. Andong in particular was a pleasure, and we discovered the traditional Korean bedroom for the first time, where you sleep on a yo (mattress) on the ondol floor (heated floor.) It's nice waking up with a warm butt but finding your bag and all its contents, including electricals, warm, is slightly alarming.
Seth, being a photographer as well as a traveller with a soft spot for mountains, was keen to go walking in some of S. Korea's famous national parks. I figured walking would be a breeze after the pilgrimage and was happy with the plan, hoping to battle the emerging mini-pot belly that had been so flat and rock solid just a week ago! (My appetite had tripled since the pilgrimage. I was like that noh-face monster in Spirited Away who eats all the guests at the bath house...) I knew that those gorgeous, feathered mountains with jagged peaks, the type you see in Asian scroll paintings, must still exist somewhere in the world, but I hadn't expected to see so many of them, so closely, and to be so awe inspired. We saw them, as well as stunning waterfalls, at Seoraksan National Park, the Murang Valley and Songnisan National Park. The mountain tops were hugged by mist and it was even chilly in the nights and the mornings. Suddenly those hot ondol floors made sense. We did short but steep treks to view points, and, whilst in Daegu, we rode out to the trail for Gatbawi, a steep rockface reached by many steps, on top of which was a seated stone Buddha surrounded by bowing, knealing, praying devotees, as well as hikers snapping pictures of the valley below, dotted with monasteries and temples. Sometimes i brought my staff to aid with the climbs - old habits die hard - and these days spent surrounded by the natural beauty of S. Korea are some of my favourite travel days to date. Koreans are obsessive hikers, and whilst we crossed paths with many - sometimes singing, sometimes picnicking, occasionally walking backwards (why not?) - it was off-season in the parks, and we found the trails peaceful. It was just two weeks before the turn of the leaves, and once the trees burst into their famed autumn colours, these paths would be invisible beneath shoulder to shoulder hikers, the crowds transforming the parks into quite something else. We would miss the colours, but it was a fair price to pay for the tranquility.
Equally lovely were the Buddhist temples we visited. I soon saw them on their own terms instead of comparing them with the temples of Japan. Beopjusa is one of the most impressive temple complexes I've ever seen, and it had the kind of atmosphere that made me want to curl up on a bench and sleep. It was the giant, golden maitreya Buddha statue that first caught your eye, but for me it was the Palsangjeon pagoda that made the place so awesome. I approached it through a gateway and for a moment had it framed before me like the most unreal picture. If I could give just one image of Korea that sums up how beautiful I think it is, i'd give you this one - the wooden pagoda, the glowing candles lit by monks inside, the eaves, layer upon layer, framed in black. Seth stalked around the compound for an hour, shooting photos. I spent most of that time in warm, dozey contemplation, basking in the beauty of the place and realising for the first time that my time in Asia was almost over.
There's one more place I must mention. I believe I have a new favourite hotel, beating even the most excellent Park Hyatt Tokyo; the Kensington Stars Hotel at Seoraksan National Park. I have never stayed anywhere quite so ridiculously bizarre and kooky without even trying to be. We chose it because it was quite posh and we felt like a little splurge. It had a location opposite the mountains of Seoraksan, and they could be seen from our balcony, topped with mist and beautiful; it was the kind of balcony that made me wish I was smoking again. But the quirks of the hotel, despite its stature (thank god for the off-peak discount), were very apparent. First of all, it called itself a British themed hotel. Two double decker London buses had been imported and plonked down in the gardens to prove the point, At reception, who could miss the Hammleys style giant wooden guard, and I couldn't help giggling at 'The Abbey Road Bar' and the library full of old fashioned leather bound books which, on closer expection, said things like 'memories!' on the spine and weren't real books at all! In the dining room, portaits of the royal family haunted us, but best of all, 'The Best of The Carpenters' was played not only on the guest room radios on repeat, but over a megaphone out into the car park and street, all day and all night. Thus it was possible to be walking past the hotel at 5am and hear 'Masquerade', as Seth testified to me after getting up early to take sunrise photos of Seoraksan and falling in the river whilst doing so. But that's not all! Despite the British theme, the bedrooms were dedicated to Korean stars of stage and screen, and pctures of them hung on the walls and in the corridors. The walls and decor were a confusion of beefeater pub meets wind in the willows, and we were loving it, drinking mountain berry wine and considering the fantastic absurdity of it all. If I get a dieing wish, it'll be to go back there and hear once more, 'I'm on Top of the World, Lookin' Down on Creation' under the painted gaze of the Duke of Edinburgh...
And so the travels come to an end for now. Time for me to settle down with the laptop (ah, that word, 'settle') and try to put my pilgrimage down in type, which I expect will be more of a pleasure than a chore, being the most brilliant journey I've ever taken myself on. I still feel astoundingly lucky, and to have this little Korean holiday for dessert - to find it so surprisingly great here, even in crazy Seoul, where it rains with no warning, and you could spend a lifetime getting lost - is such a treat. Some people think I might shed the travel bug the way one shrugs off a cold. How can i when the world keeps on showing me more and more?

The Two Best Nonsensical English T-shirts Found in Korea

1. 'Style Man. I Notice You're Wearing New Eye Glasses. My Glasses Aren't in My Suitcase. I Must Have Left Them At Home.'

2. 'Robot of Cowboy Doll? Mid Ohio Robot Projact. A Comprehensive Strategy to Reduce Robot Emissions in Central Ohio.'


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