I really lucked out on boat last night! Trying to find the correct terminal to check Gabriella, I ran into the owner of a limousine service who bought me dinner and upgraded my ticket to first class!! Instead of sleeping in a mixed dorm room with 12 other travelers I had a large room with a double bed, small kitchenette, T.V and bathroom all to myself. Unfortunately the journey was only a few hours, making it really difficult to leave the comfort of the suite for the cold, rainy Fukuoka morning.
My plans for visiting the beautiful Korean island of Jeju changed when I noticed that November is quickly coming to an end, leaving me with little over a month before heading back to the states for the holidays. Korea, besides being one of the most populated countries in the world, was especially bike friendly! Bike paths can literally be found everywhere and when pedaling on the highways vehicles usually pass with care. The traffic light system is also designed in a (rather annoying) overly cautious manner where 5 seconds will pass between a red light and the green! Making maters worse intersections are usually devoid of sensors, which leads to huge traffic jams during rush hour. During this time I see many vehicles do what I call a “Korean U-Turn” where drivers will often turn around near the intersection at a red light and try to drive into nearby drive way to avoid waiting at the signal.
The mix of people and openness of elders was also quite interesting, especially in the countryside where I was often lectured and sometimes even scolded by elderly women for the following:
1. Not wearing warm enough footwear/clothes. (Sandals are a definite no-no)
2. Camping in the wilderness (they said this will make my mother and father worry)
3. Not eating the correct food (“kimchi and noodles everyday will make you weak and eventually sick”)
Luckily my Korean and their English was extremely limited so the top three pretty much sum up the conversations of many encounters.
While pedaling through the more inhabited regions I would often set up office at a Starbucks or McDonald’s, which always has free internet and unlimited hot water. The Starbucks’ in Korea almost always take up two floors. The bottom floor is usually empty, and at first you think that you are the only customer. That is until you go up the stairs and see that almost every seat is filled with Koreans on their laptops or cellphones. No one speaks and it’s almost as if you are on the silent floor at the local library.
I must say though that, one could visit Korea solely on the purpose of frequenting the public bath houses (Jim Jill Bang). I stayed at a few of these during my visit, usually pedaling into the city in the late afternoon and asking a local to point me in the direction, (Jim Jill Bang Odi Soy Yo). Almost every major city will have one and on all three occasions I have never seen another foreigner inside. It usually costs less than $10 to; bath using 3 different shower set ups (standing, siting and tub), soak in 3 different pools (very hot, warm and cold), sauna, steam and sleep in a warm wooden room near a wood burning stove. Home cooked food is usually available, but sleeping can sometimes be difficult as cellphones frequently ring at odd hours during the night.
Before pedaling to Busan (where I took the ferry to Fukuoka) I spent 4 days exploring the ancient Korean capital of Gyeongju. During Korea’s dynastic period, Gyeongju was the main city in Korea, with 5 different Dynasties calling it their capital. Throughout the city there are hundreds of landmarks ranging from tombs to temples to ancient villages. There are also lots of examples of early works of Buddhist art fabricated at the time when Buddhism was spread to Korea by the Chinese Tang dynasty (early 7th century C.E). The Koreans at this time also adopted Confucianism as well as the Tang Clothing style. Many of the giant tombs in Gyeongju contain Chinese board games, pottery and jewelry.
On my last day in the ancient city, I made friends with a “Miss Kim“, a Korean lady in her 80’s who claimed the title of Kimchi master! This is a pretty bold statement in a land of cabbage but I took her word for it as she gave me a tour of the different types brewing in large plastic tubs in her yard. Like my grandparents in Los Angeles (who always adopt and use the latest piece of technology) she boasted that she gave up using the classic black ceramic kimchi pots because she wanted to introduce a new style of fast/flash fermenting, and plastic tubs warmed faster during the day. I tried all different flavors and even drank her home-brewed soy sauce and miso paste.
I got totally lost following a bike path headed for Busan and ended up in the center of one of Korea’s largest cities, Ulsan. Aimlessly, I pedaled for close to 45 minutes, taking steep walkways to underground shopping malls and pedaling roads built on bridges that seemed to lead to the heavens. As it got dark, I gave up and decided to fill up my stove and cook dinner in a park. My luck quickly changed at the gas station where I befriended an employee who gave me fruit, crackers, vitamin drinks, gloves and 20,000 won ($20).
20,000 won goes fast in a Korean grocery, store especially when you buy foreign goods! For the first time in a very long time I bought peanut butter, jelly and gummy bears! I was so excited that I woke up several times at night to eat a few bites of peanut butter, and chew on a gummy or two.
Overall I would have to say that the same mechanism that led me like Korea, has also made me dislike it. Many people seem to be stuck in social constructed norms, where situations that don’t fit in with their daily routine are often ignored. This can be said for many countries but it was very noticeable in Korea. I found that many people will ignore me when I ask for directions on the street. If I speak to them in Korean or pronounce a destination in Korean they will tell me that they don’t speak English and walk away. It seems that they would rather ignore than to confront a new situation. Being ignored is great when you are camping in the central park but when you are lost it’s frustrating.
Even with these constrictions I met many great and hospitable people, and hold a high regard for Korea. It was an interesting experience traveling there, and I am interested in how Japan will compare.
Time to find a place to set up my tent in the busy city of Fukuoka! I looked at a few hostels but they are all located up several floors in large buildings with small stair cases/elevators and it just too much work to carry Gaby all the way up to a cramped dorm room for one night. Prices are also pretty steep here so I rather save a few Yen for more peanut butter and gummies.