Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 04 2012

Korea, part four

The love hotel had plenty of amenities, I suppose, including a huge screen and partial Internet, but we didn’t trust the place enough to leave the wallpapered-over windows open. Consequently, we didn’t realize that the weather had turned nasty overnight until we walked out the front door the next morning, having told the clerk through the tiny window that we were leaving. The brightly lit edifices of the night before were now somber shadows in the misty weather.   

We walked through the rain and freezing wind to the nearby bus station, where there was no evidence of lockers to store our bags.We had breakfast at one of the station joints, adding in a couple of traditional red bean cookies while we waited for the weather to clear. I sat and watched the various transient figures you find in small-town bus stations, the nervous, overly made-up woman who is trying to hard to look respectable, the man who really wants a smoke, the bored conductor, etc.

Suddenly, bright light flooded in from outside; the rain had broken, and bright blue was scraping across the sky. I rushed out, almost taking pictures immediately of the most ordinary things just because the light was so welcome. But our real destination was a ways up the road: The Barrow Downs.

Or so I like to call it. In reality it’s not far off from Tolkein’s vision, as it is a group of huge mounds under which ancient kings were buried along with their treasures. Patches of bright light flashed across the yellow mounds and trees, creating glimpses of eerily beautiful scenery before everything went gray again. Here and there a tour group was gathered around a speaker explaining the history, but the place was empty for the most part.

I walked inside the mound that was open to visitors, through a tunnel into a large chamber, the smushed gold bracelets of the old king in a pit at the center, surrounded by lit swords and saddles for tiny horses. It kind of freaked me out; I wouldn’t want to be in there at night, alone or with hobbits.

Our train was leaving at 11am, though, so we piled in a taxi and took off for the station after only a short time. Outside the station stood a line of people taking orders from some kind of leader. They balked a bit when I took their photo as we rushed into the station, blown by the still-fierce wind. I wasted a bit of memory storage on the platform taking shots with the wrong settings, but fortunately realized my error by the time the train arrived, just after a long line of oil tankers slid into the other berth.

Sliding once again through the brown country on a train was very pleasant. I love train travel in a new (to me) country. We passed by rocky mountainsides, fields, factories, streams, and blue-roofed villages, each featuring at least one church spire and sometimes several. There was also a bit of wind-blown garbage along the way to our destination of Andong, where we discovered that the temperature had dropped at least a dozen degrees, leaving us cringing on the platform before finding refuge at a lunch at a place Chenbl found in his guidebook. The waitresses were greatly entertained by the pictures of their shop in the book; they gathered around and laughed and asked us questions that we couldn’t answer as we had no idea what they were saying for the most part.

After lunch we caught a local bus out of town along winding roads to Hahoe Village, a 600-year-old settlement located inside the bend of a river, surrounded by mountains. Before we got there, the bus driver stopped at an ancient academy facing the river, and we got out to have a look around while he took a break.

It was snowing. White flakes were pattering down on my wimpy little umbrella, which was quicky rendered useless by the freezing wind. I’m sure it was a fascinating old place, but all I wanted to do was get out of that shit and back on the relatively warm, snow-free bus.

Thus, I wasn’t in the most adventurous of moods when we were dropped off near Hahoe Village itself; I trudged into the wind up the hill cursing to myself as we looked for a place to stay the night. This was no easy task, as the only places that looked to be available were all empty and adorned with signs and phone numbers, useless as we had no phone service. The place was seemingly devoid of life, and the only person we could find in the first half hour was a woman who waved us away.

Eventually we happened upon a woman who was willing to let us stay at her place, but while the room she showed us was warm enough thanks to the Korean system of heating the undersides of their traditional houses, an old clock bonged out the time every 15 minutes…not the best sleep aid.

“The place also stinks,” I said to Chenbl. “Or is that your feet?”

“No, it’s her,” he said as the woman left the room and the odor lessened somewhat.

Linda and Daphne had found another place with clock-free, less odiferous rooms, fortunately, and we stowed our things in the old complex before heading out with our new landlord to a delicous dinner of Andong Chicken made by his mother. We ate it in a plastic-tent-fronted restaurant; nobody else seemed to be around, and it was no wonder; I couldn’t see anyone else being crazy enough to go all the way out there in that weather.

We had an old TV in our tiny room, but it had only four fuzzy channels, all Korean, so we hit the sack early. It was so cold out that we didn’t bother with showers, and pissed off the porch in the middle of the night rather than making the long journey to the outhouse. It was strange to sleep on a heated floor, almost like being slowly baked in an oven, though the air above was chill.

I woke early this morning after going to bed so early the night before; it was freezing out, Chenbl reported after pissing off the porch. Outside, the sun was just rising above the ridgeline into a clear, cloudless sky. We all wrapped ourselves up as well as we could against the chill and headed out to explore the part of the village we hadn’t seen the day before.

I walked though the utterly empty streets out to the solitary church, its spire a home to several jays, past many varieties of farm machinery, and down a lane where I came across an older Japanese man taking shots of the ally wall with his Nikon. We talked a bit in both English and Japanese, and it turned out that we runs a photo service in Fukuoka, a place I’d really like to visit someday.

A couple of alleys over, Chenbl had found a cow and its owner, a middle-aged Korean man who talked incessantly at us as though we understood him. He was shoveling the cow’s droppings up and pitching it them into a nearby field. Nearby a group of men were building a house in the traditional fashion using stones and mud. It was the outskirts of town, but it was the busiest part we’d seen yet. I also could have sworn I saw the village’s hidden flying saucer in a neighbor’s yard. 

The man with the cow was stacking firewood, and he basically told us to stop photographing him and take some shots of the wonderful stacking job he was doing.

Breakfast was at another hostel and consisted of rice, fish, tofu, etc. in another small heated room, after which we continued wandering. Tour groups and students appeared en masse at one point as the sun climbed, the interesting shadows disappearing. Our last point of interest was a huge old tree that is supposed to harbor the spirit of the village, and a group of elderly folks showed up just after we did, making speeches and bowing to the tree.

It was time to go, but before we could do so we had to partake of at least part of the local mask dance, which was preceded by a long speech in Korean. “Do you understand Korean at all?” I asked the Japanese photographer in Japanese. He said he didn’t.

The show consisted of rather low-brow humor, including two men in a cow suit, the rear one holding the cow’s penis and balls, with which he would periodically spray the audience, as well as a randy priest lusting after a woman peeing in the woods. When one actor wearing the mask of an old woman began begging from the audience, I leaned over and asked Chenbl what kind of money people were giving, as I couldn’t make it out. “Relax, just pretend like you’re photographing him and he won’t ask you for money,” he said.

As if on cue, the actor made a beeline for Chenbl and, camera or no, held out his hat. The next target was the photographer’s Japanese friend, who seemed not to realize that there was probably one more zero on the bill he handed over than he had intended, but I think the resulting hug from the actor might have clued him in.

Now it really was time to go, though, so we ducked out and onto a bus to the bus station, where we had lunch. I couldn’t resist the “chicken nuggets and coke combo”, which is actually both in the same cup, only separated by thin plastic, and fried dumplings.

I got a real kick out of writing the words, “On the bus to Seoul” in my notebook as we sped along the highway in comfort, though snow was on the ground in places along the way. Every song I played on my phone was wonderful, and I realized looking at the traffic that nobody here drives Japanese cars, or anything but Korean cars, actually. Perhaps they’re still in their 80’s Detroit phase, but I suspect the reason is that Korean cars have improved immensely since the 1980’s.

The sun got red and fat, skimming the treeline as we approach Seoul, following and then crossing the Han River into the city’s smoky skyline. Thankfully, the weather here isn’t as cold as I was expecting. I keep looking more closely at signs in Korean, as if it’s only Chinese characters that I don’t immediately recognize, before I realize that I really don’t have any hope of figuring them out as it’s just not a language I know at all.

We got on the subway, which is wide and sports an obvious history and is easy enough to navigate, only to find ourselves lost when we confronted the instructions to the sauna where we were hoping to spend the night. We did find it eventually thanks to three young samaritans, but it took about an hour longer than it should have. We had dinner at a 24-hour place in a well-kempt older building (always a good sign in my book), and then checked into the sauna, where I’m typing this in the computer room as my money runs out.

We’ll be in and around Seoul for the next two days, but I’m not entirely sure what the plan is; so far I’ve just been kind of going with it, and as that’s worked out well enough, I suppose I will just keep doing that.

posted by Poagao at 11:44 pm  

1 Comment »

  1. Nice blog, I’m glad to find it

    Comment by outdoor products — November 1, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

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