My schedule, prepared with great care by the KOCIS team at the Ministry of Culture Sports and Tourism, contained a balance of sights and interviews that I had requested for my intended articles, together with sights which they thought might be interesting for me or which are on the normal programme for their visiting journalists. One or two things on the schedule I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen if I’d been organising things myself; and one or two sights on the list I had already seen. But I am always keen to be a good guest, and to seize the opportunity to experience new things: to see what it is that other tourists might be interested in even if I was luke-warm about them. And I don’t mind seeing the same thing twice, because you can always appreciate a different aspect. So whatever was on my schedule I was very happy to experience to the full. And as it happened, “experience” was to be a constant refrain I heard from the event organisers that I met throughout my trip. (The other one was: there’s not enough time).
One of the destinations I had requested, after doing the heavy cultural projects in Seoul at the start of my visit, was Sancheong County in Gyeongsangnam-do in the far south of the peninsula: as well as there being a seasonal Medicinal Herb Festival (the Koreans seem to have a festival for everything, so I wanted to pick one at random to see what they were all about), I’d been told there was plenty of sights to see in the area as well. In particular, Jiri Mountain at tea picking time has for a long time been something I’d wanted to see. A friend of mine was exhibiting at the festival, so it seemed like a good opportunity to kill several birds with one stone: see a friend, see how Koreans preserve and present what could loosely be called “culture” in a local festival, and see some scenery.
With utmost consideration, the KCIS had accordingly included the Sancheong Herb Festival in the schedule. On top of that, they had included the nearby Hadong Green Tea festival, a walk on Jirisan, a trip to a scenic bay in neighbouring Jeollanam-do, and also managed to squeeze in a temple stay in the middle of all this. Now that is what I call ingenious and thoughtful.
But my friend in Sancheong wanted me to spend longer there, and had rung my interpreter, Morgan, to see what could be done about it. Before I knew it my schedule had been changed, new accommodation fixed, and I am spending an extra day in Sancheong – of which more later.
I was learning that my schedule was not at all fixed if I did not want it to be.
On the way to the Yongin Folk Village, destination #1 of my first tourist day, Morgan asks me about some of the items on the schedule. “Have you been to the Suwon Fortress?” she asks (Suwon is destination #2 on the schedule). “Well, actually, I went there last year,” I said, in an embarrassed fashion. And after a pause, I added enthusiastically, “but I don’t mind seeing it again, because I didn’t see all of it last time.”
“No, that’s OK, let’s skip it,” she says, brightly. “Where would you like to go instead?” I hadn’t come prepared for spontaneity, and didn’t have my regional guide book with me. But after a bit of discussion we decide on the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon (Seoul Grand Park), of which I never tire and where I have never on previous occasions had enough time (not that it was going to be any different this time).
Similarly, when I got down to Sancheong, the initial proposed schedule was subject to revision as my local hosts discovered what interested me. I have a slight suspicion that down in Sancheong I was gently hijacked by the local tourism promotion board, and they were keen for me to see everything. That was fine by me as I made discoveries that would never have happened had everything been set in stone from the start.
So the visit to Korea was full of pleasures both expected and unexpected.
With that, on to what actually happened.