I arrived in Busan on a very rainy day. It kept pouring down for a week. All the rain I was spared for in Japan, was to be found here. In fact, it seemed that all the rain in the whole world came down in this coastal town of South Korea.
I checked in to a love-hotel, an invention for couples who need a hideaway for a few hours. But these love-hotels hold quite high standards, so I don’t mind staying there. The only difference from a normal hotel, is that you can check in for a few hours, and they have all the “needed supplies” in the bathroom. Right behind the hotel was a huge international market, and lots of Russian pivny bars - and also a lot more dirt than in Japan.
You may wonder - did I have a rush of sentiments of “My country” when I arrived? I feared I would have to deal with a broad spectre of complex emotions. But in fact, I was disappointed over my own reactions. Strictly spoken, knowing myself, I expected a little more hysteria than usual! It did not even get close to an average Oprah Winfrey show. It was special for me to get there - I mean: the idea. But where the hell was the rush of heavenly self-insight? Where were my sentimental reactions? Hello?
A sacred place
The first temple I went to, Pomosa, was a great surprise. It is a almost mysterious place, situated in the northern hills of Busan. As I walked around, I recalled David Hurley’s (from Hiroshima) words: “Koreans seem to take their religion pretty seriously”. The sound of bells, drumming, the sight of kneeling and meditating believers, put me in a most spiritual mood.
Therefore, it was sort of disturbing getting approached by the only other foreigner there - who was an extraordinarily talkative one too! He kept following me around, asking me questions about the number of countries I have ever visited, telling me the exact number of “his”, and bragging about how he was going to North Korea the week after. Going there, you have to cash out an absurd sum of money, then you will be followed around at any time by guards, who take you to well prepared showcases. So you will not experience the “authentic” North Korea in any case.
North Korea seem to attract two types of people; politically interested people. And travellers who need to have the place on their “list”.
Anyway - his presence was just enough to ruin my peaceful visit. I tried to hide in a temple, pretending to meditate. But even though I sat in the temple for half an hour, he waited outside until I finished, and did not leave me before we were back in the centre of the city.
Inventing an alphabet - the Hangeul
Korean alphabet, Hangeul, is a constructed alphabet (Joseon dynasty) , when King Sejeon in 1446 decided that Korea needed an alphabet by its own. Until then, Chinese characters were the only tools for writing. Chinese characters are still used in both Japan and Korea. But while the characters were simplified in China during Mao’s time, the Koreans use the complex ones.
The Hangeul is commonly known as the “morning alphabet”, as its said to be so simple that one can learn it during half an hour over the breakfast in the morning. That is an exaggeration. But it is not hard to pick up. And it is worth learning it, because the transliteration system sucks, and many signs will be in Korean only. My Korean speaking abilities, however, is a joke. I know the names of much food. But I still can’t produce the most common greetings. It is not something I am particularly proud of, but that said - talking to Koreans is very complicated. They have the Confucian tradition of giving each other social status, following the rules of five relations: king and subject, father and son, man and wife, older and younger brother, and friend and friend. Depending on the relation of the person you speak to, you use different endings on the words.
Creating sentences are also confusing. Word order is chaotic, seen from an Indo-European, or even Semitic standing point. Korean belongs to the Ural-Altaic language group to which under also Turkish, Mongolian and Japanese are classified. Sentences are created by adding suffix after suffix (suffixation) on a “base-word” to create a full meaning.
Therefore: Korean sounds surprisingly Mongolian, Tibetan or Central-Asian, rather than Chinese or Japanese. Also a lot of the music sounds much more Turkic than Chinese.
There was a second reason to learn the alphabet. I wanted to try dog while here. They believe it’s very good for the health - and probably the stamina too (stamina-food is very big in Korea). But I wanted to decide myself when the dog is to appear on the plate. Alphabet seemed to be the key. Finally my conscience told me not to try it, however, as the dogs are severly beaten before cooked, as this is allegedly the way to make the meat more tender.
The luck of fermented beans
Food was also the factor when I met the Lee-family who immediately took me under their wings.
The first night in Busan, I wandered about in the small street, under the heavy rain, I was starving, and everywhere I looked, I could not find any readable menus. All of a sudden I found myself in the front of a tiny eatery, engulfed in the most repelling odour you can imagine. I wanted to puke. Or run away. But then there was this moment when the woman working there, caught my eye. And I felt very obliged to step inside.
The smell was penetrating. But I ordered a plate of it. Fermented beans. Very fermented, it seemed. Then there was this guy sitting in the place, together with his daughter. Mr. Lee. He explained me what I was eating - and which anyway turned out to be extremely tasty. The second sentence he uttered: “I wish you would come and stay with my family in our house, at least for one night”.
I thought he was joking. But he was not.
The next day I met up with him and his wife, Sun Hee, who is an English teacher. We had lunch and coffee, and next thing; they invited me to go to the mountains with them that weekend. What a hospitality!
Silly names, and a devoted Norwegian
But first I went to Gyongju. Ii is the former capital of Korea, during the Silla dynasty. It is famous for the Bulguksa temple, numerous other shrines and temples, graves which are scattered about in the area, resembling green giant pimples and other ancient structures.
Of course I was happy that I had arrived in the right town. Because names of Koreans towns, especially when your pronounciation is as lousy as mine, seem to be all variations over one name. Just try these ones: Gyongju. Gwangju. Gongju. Yeongju. Jeonju. Cheongju. They are all different towns.
The first evening I spend over a bottle of plumwine with a Scottish girl. And it was she who told me about the temple Golgulsa. It is the world-centre of the martial arts-form: Sun Mo Do.
She told me that she had met a Norwegian who was teaching there. And quite right - there was this boy, only 23, already a teacher. Some three years ago, he had been on an excursion to South Korea with his school at the time. He decided to stay to learn enough so to open the first teaching centre in Norway. Following a most strict regime (getting up at four every morning!) starting his career by bowing not less than 3000 times. Per day! I was really impressed by his attitude. He may be only 23, but his reflections upon balance, physical and mental harmony, plus breathing control, was deep-felt and sincere.
Gyongju was furthermore a fine place to bike around, spend weeks trekking and meditating. I had no time for all that, but hitchhiking around, I managed to cover quite a lot anyway.
Discovering Korean potato-fields
Back in Busan, I caught up with Mr Lee and his two children. We immediately went to the mountains around the Jiri mountain. There Mrs Lee joined us, with a group of teachers from her school.
We stayed on an organic farm-complex/ hotel, belonging to Mr Lees brother and his lovely family. In the middle of the wild, wild nature, in the mountains, surrounded by dense forest, and a huge dam, they cultivate their own organic vegetables and emphasizes traditional life. The main building had electricity, but their wooden huts had no lights but candles, there was an outdoor toilet. In the garden, the huge kimchi-jars were piling up, one after the other.
I had many expectations arriving in this land, but I could I never have guessed that the first weekend in South Korea, I would stand with my feet in black, wet soil, harvesting potatoes the good, old way. I have glittering memories, doing that with my grandparents and my nanny ages ago, now all these childhood-images came back. Thanks to this prosaic vegetable, I was doing some serious bonding to this country, standing with my feet in a potato-field. Bizarre!
The whole weekend was a neverending feast of food and tastes, great company as one family after the other arrived and stayed overnight. In the evening we sat around the longtable, every one had to perform in the lights of candles; songs, games and some martial arts. I had to sing the Norwegian song: “Eg heiter Håvard Hedde” for the fourth time during this trip. Thanks to my insisting primary school music teacher for equipping me with such a fine cultural-bridge-building-tool.
“A squid waffle?”
Back in Busan, I continued to stay with the Lee-family in their modern, comfortable flat. They are very healthy, Mr Lee getting up at four, like the monks, to meditate. Mrs Lee was a compassionate yogaist, and both the children were taking martial arts classes every day.
In general Koreans seem really healthy. Smoking is regarded as incredibly bad - much worse than drinking (Koreans are, by the way, said to be the latinos of Northeast-Asia: parties, socialising and a some very adult drinks are always welcomed there, it seems). The mountains are all swarming with trekkers and hikers, virtually every Korean knows one or another form of martial art, gyms are very popular, and golf, tennis, biking and all kinds of outdoorsports are cultivated on a great scale.
The food is also a part of the healthy lifestyle. Before I came, I heard so much about the Korean barbecue and meat. But most of the everyday-diet consists of vegetables. I can not imagine an average Norwegian man being satisfied eating so much vegetables, as the Korean men do.
You would think it makes people small. But getting proteins from all the soya-products, fish and egg, makes them very healthy and fit. The later generations are very tall and solidly build, also thanks to dairy products.
I managed to get pretty addicted to dried seaweed there, and the blood sausage stuffed into pork-intestine was also a great surprise. But the hot squid-waffles that have an intense smell of burnt hair and skin, will never ever be my favourite-dish.
“Be a good boy, finish your plate!”
While in Busan, I had the chance to see Tongdosa-temple complex as well. Mrs Lee, who I met in the mountains, took me there. We had lunch in there as well.
Lunch is offered in many of the temples in Korea, but don’t take more than you can meet. Leaving as much as a grain on the plate, is frowned upon.
The next day, TaeYuen, the son of the Lee-family, took me to an island right next to Busan. From here, one can spot some Japanese islands, if the day is bright. Unfortunately it was a very hot day. All of a sudden, he said: “When the weather is changing many times during one day, we say that Lions get married. Lions or foxes”.
That was a curious thing. One can discover quite a few things about the national psyche and folklore by tracing the origin of such sayings, phenomenons or habits. But neither he, nor anyone else I asked, knew the origin or explanation of this saying.
Two dog lovers
Leaving the Lee-family was sad. They had given me the full freedom of staying as long as I wanted. They had fed me. And most of all - they had taken great, great care of me, from the very first second.
But I have this rule that I heard somewhere a few years ago; food and guests go bad after three days. Although it is silly to apply such general rules to every situation, I still believe it is a quite wise saying. Besides, their son was about to leave for a year to America a few days later.
So I took the ferry to Jeju-do, an island in the south. I met so funny people there. For instance a couple in love (Jeju-do is “love-island”, couples in love, and newly married go there to celebrate loooove). However one of the problems they had was this. The boy loved dog-meat. In fact it was his favorite dish. While he told me, he was sending sideways glances towards his girlfriend, as if to calm her down. “You see, she loves dogs. She has quite a few, “ he added. Many? “How many? Four? Five?” I asked. “200,” she told me.
She - and her family started out with a considerably lower number, but as they take care of streetdogs, they soon found themselves having a whole menagerie of the Korean national dish running around in their private garden. “I think it is crazy! It cost a fortune to feed all these animals,” said the boy, with a disbelief in his voice, as if this fact was new to him too.
Not exactly bikini-island…
In Japan I was told that despite beautiful beaches and unbearable hot weather, only children swim. I thought Korea would be better. And yes, people go to the beach. But. I found myself being the only girl in bikini, among thousands and thousands of holidaymakers. It was not very pleasant. Or, the men seemed not to mind. At all. But I had some very suspicious looks from a few grannies and other women. No need to upset the locals, I thought. God knows what an annoyed Korean granny could be like! So therefore I slipped into my decent shorts again and - soon I resorted to the mountains. To be honest - I started to be a bit sic of this Asian summer, especially as reports from Norway ticked in, and I knew there was 40 degrees back home and people were practically living right on the shore, never coming out of the water.
Well. The tropical Jeju island can offer lots of volcanic mountains, waterfalls, craters and also the tallest mountain in Korea is to be found there. In the hills you can see flocks of horses grazing alongside with cows. From the top of the mountains you can see the ocean stretching for miles and miles. It is amazing!
Just like the Japanese, the Koreans are very honest. One day I took a taxi, I was standing in a little shop after I paid him. After a good quarter of an hour, he managed to track me. Meanwhile, he had found my camera in the back of his car. I was so perplex, I don’t think I managed to thank him fully, like I should have done.
About face and outfits
Several times people told I have a traditional face. What on earth did they mean by that? Turned out I have a face with features typical of the last century. Or the one before that. Or as a girl told me: - You know, these days women undergo plastic surgery in order to look better.
I was puzzled. Finally I decided to be happy to not have an untraditional face. At least.
Anyway - these days North-Asians are taller, fatter and more solidly built than earlier. Dairyproducts, fast food, better economy - it is all changing the physics.
Anyway, when it comes to dressing, I figured I prefer the Korean national costume to the Japanese and the Chinese (although Chinese are very numerous, but I am talking about the slim, tight-necked type). Japanese can hardly walk in their complicated kimonos, and the Chinese look great, but they can not really sit or eat while wearing their stuff. But wearing the hanbook, as Tae Yun said: “Even fat people will look good in it.”
Its wide-sleeved and voluminous, but according to women, it is anyway very unpractical, as it gets in your way. But - it is great for food orgies!
Feeling rather tired, I was half asleep in the bus on the way to Seoul. Tired, okay - but hallucinating? All of a sudden I thought I saw calamares! Once, when hitchhiking to Poland, I was so exhausted, I saw ostriches in the field on the way to the Auschwitz camp. But calamares? Turned out that it was a transport of live seafood. I was on the way to Seoul. And so were they. In the truck, they had little windows to tap on with their shiny tentacles. In the front, the driver was whistling away. As if it is a perfectly natural thing to drive a truck with a whole little sea in the back. And what were these travelling squids thinking with their small brains, as the Korean landscaped passed outside in the speed of a 110 k’s an hour? Truly - man is a weird creature. But well, it’s a good thing to know that fresh seafood means fresh seafood, even in Seoul which is an inland town.
The scene also reminded me of Laurie Anderson’s great performance “The ugly one with the jewels”, where she tells the story of the man who claim he can communicate with whales. Telepathically. And one of the whales which are swimming around in a great tank, keeps asking the same question again and again: “Do all oceans have walls?”
In Seoul I had my birthday - do you know they count one year extra in Korea, as they count the time in the womb as effective time as well? I splashed out and had Korean blood-sausage, a surprisingly super-tasty thing wrapped in real intestines. Not for the faint-hearted there.
I spend one week just being in Seoul, going to exhibitions, I saw the show of my Japanese artist-friend again, Mr. Hasegawa. I was taken to the biggest salsa-society in Korea by my friend Kang who is teaching there - that was great, great fun!
Also got my Mongolian visa, and managed to meet three of my study friends from Vladivostok. Two, Jin Hi and Se Yun, were even in my group in the university (we were only five). They really knew how to take care of a guest! We had lots of fun, and I enjoyed hearing them talking about how it is to be caught in the middle of a cultural bridge. They have been living in Russia for a considerable amount of time. Now they have trouble to accept the Korean lifestyle, especially their status as women. The women are generally more independent and freer in Korea, than for instance in Japan (by far!), but the cultural code is still Asian, the strictness of the Confutian moral structures, still puts the women as a second best only. According to my friends. And they are not very willing to accept this. Still they were dreading the perspectives of getting a Russian husband, just in case the standard package applies: too much alcohol, hanging around and just not do very much at all.
My toe who/ which visited North Korea
One of the “must-do’s” in Seoul, is to go to Panjammun, the Northern Korean border. I could not resist. And well, it was interesting to see the Northern Korean tourists on the other side, and allegedly we were standing at their territory at one point. Not that my foot really noticed. Apart from that, it was just another border, and you could learn just as much from sitting quietly in your hostel and read about it.
Finally - with the most devilish hangover, I got on the ferry in Incheon. I recommend the ferries in Asia for everyone with a little spare time. So comfy, and always with these spa-like installations. On the way we also passed mystical mountains, said to be Northern Korean territory.
I had a personal stalker on the ferry, but apart from that, it all went very well! Had spend nearly one month in Korea, and it was time to move on. I was going back to China. My favorite place. I was really excited about it!
Artist and writer from Norway. Spending most of my time globetrotting. Core areas: ex-Soviet and Middle East. Currently located in Beijing, being very busy with wushu - kung fu and improving my mandaring... full info