Jennifer Barclay went to Seoul with her musician boyfriend eight years ago with no fixed agenda other than a desire to get away from her job. Fortunately, while in Korea she took advantage of her free time to explore parts of the country which are not necessarily on the tourist route.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive guidebook. Other travel books might have a theme – trying (like Clive Leatherdale) to get to all four points of the compass, or in the case of Simon Winchester, trying to follow the route of a famous traveller from the past. Instead, this a lively record of wherever it was that the author happened to go on her weekly escapes from the steamy metropolis and the soulless Grand Hyatt. She goes where the mood takes her, often without forethought, sometimes ending up walking all day with no food. Camping on the beach, staying in cheap hotels and mountain temples or being welcomed into people’s homes. After finding it difficult to connect with people in the capital (aside from an unwelcome advance from a bisexual Itaewon bargirl), in the provinces she always seems to come across a friendly native who is happy to welcome her – ranging from a bungee-jumping monk to the local postman.
The genial narrative of her summer and early autumn in Korea is interspersed with passages of historical and contemporary interest, enabling the complete beginner to put modern Korea in context. And there is one fact which I haven’t seen in print before but which is entirely plausible: that North Korean experts have spent time in Zimbabwe training Mugabe’s goons in the delicate arts of interrogating and torturing dissidents.
The picture of Korea that Barclay paints is very different – and complementary – to the picture that is portrayed in the official government websites and the usual guide books. She didn’t go to Korea to collect photos of World Heritage Sites, and her most serious attempt to score some tourist points is cut short: Kyongju, the museum without walls, was found to have rather too many walls around the various sites, containing also rather too many tourists having their photographs taken. She beats a hasty retreat, instead opting to head for an unknown fishing village at the end of a random bus route.
She shows a preference for the mountains, the temples and the beaches, and prefers to avoid places crowded with sightseers, though her account of a crowded weekend at the seaside gives an insight into how Koreans spend their own time off.
Barclay shows herself willing to tackle absolutely anything on the food front. I am, however, concerned at her drinking habits. I am always slightly puzzled when responsible writers liken soju to paintstripper, as Barclay does, and I wonder whether in order to make such a pronouncement they have actually tasted both liquids being compared. I always find soju to have a very mild, and rather too pleasant flavour, and I imagine that paintstripper must be rather rough and frankly undrinkable. So either Barclay drank some extremely bad soju, or she does some extremely posh DIY.
I can confirm Barclay’s observation about the severity of the soju hangover, but I have always put that down to the admixture of beer and whisky that is an inevitable part of a drinking session. But next time I shall take up Barclay’s recommendation of kimchi as a hangover cure – and it is this restorative property of the Korean national dish which accounts for the subtitle to the book (How I went to Korea and learned to love kimchi).
The Mr Kim of the main part of the title, apart from being a handy placeholder for a substantial portion of the Korean population, is in fact a Seoulite that Barclay bumped into hiking in a national park, fitted out with all the essential hiking kit. Mr Kim stands for all the Koreans who showed the author so much kindness during her stay.
It is entirely likely that the experiences she had were because of who she is, and because she was usually travelling solo. Maybe a single man travelling alone would not have aroused the same level of friendliness and protectiveness. And when Barclay is accompanied by her boyfriend on the final trip up the east coast nothing seems to go right. It is maybe this latter experience which might resonate more with less fortunate travellers.
It would have been nice to have had some photographs to illustrate the narrative, particularly the titular Mr Kim in his hiking regalia, but Barclay’s text paints a vivid enough picture. While it would be impossible to replicate her trip, it inspires one to have a go.
- Buy Meeting Mr Kim at amazon.co.uk