Tuesday 4 May 2010. I had intended to go to see Yi Chuljin’s Seungmu performance this evening, having failed to see it on Sunday, but there are too many conflicting appointments to fit them all in. I’m heading towards Hongdae to meet some new blogging friends – always something I like to do when coming to Seoul. It’s a national holiday tomorrow – Children’s Day – and beside me on the tube an office-worker has dutifully been shopping for last-minute gifts of Disney products.
Emerging into the crowded streets around Hongik University station, the evening is just getting under way. Every night seems to be party night in Hongdae, always a throng of people. Short skirts and high heels lengthen the legs of the college girls chatting on the phone waiting for their friends to turn up. My first meeting of the evening is with Robert Neff, a journalist and historian who specialises in the late Joseon dynasty and early colonial period.
Neff first came to Korea in the mid 1980s as a member of the US military, and now that he’s a civilian he’s decided to try to stay longer term. He can usually be found in libraries researching in the late 19th century English-language newspapers published in Japan which served the foreign community in the region. Through painstaking browsing, linking and cross-referencing, he builds up character portraits of the colourful individuals who lived in this frontier period. Through his weekly columns in the Jeju Weekly he brings a little-known period to life, and recently published, with Cheong Sunghwa, a full length portrait of the age: Korea through Western Eyes. Definitely one for the reading list.1
Next, a quick drink with Anna Lindgren of Indieful RoK, together with Kim Jin-sung, aka Mr Kwang, the most entrepreneurial of Korean music retailers: he’s full of energy, ideas and different projects. He tells me about his indie gaming project – the fact that there is an indie gaming scene, just like an indie music scene, is news to me. Then he floats an idea that he thinks might interest me: the online publication of Korean Manwha in English in a possible new channel of London Korean Links. He’s right: it does interest me.
Anna is thoroughly enjoying her brief week in Seoul. She’s preparing for her interview with the Donga Ilbo on Friday, and is full of stories from an amazing concert. Having met Tearliner on her first day in Seoul, a couple of days later she had visited the Pastel Music studios and ended up chatting with Zitten: both artists she has interviewed for London Korean Links in the past couple of years.
Onwards to meet a friend from England, celebrating her birthday in a western-style bar in Nakseongdae near Seoul National University. The tube is still crowded at 10pm, with standing room only. I’m always amazed at the ability of Seoulites to keep their balance without strap-hanging.
Watery, gassy beer by the jugful is probably the best drink to be served if you want to stay sober, and that’s what this Naksongdae bar specialised in. Just as well, as I had an early start the next morning. But why would people go to such a soulless place when in any backstreet there’s an informal restaurant where you can get a decent drink and have a tasty stew to go with it? I deliver my birthday gift of Marmite, which is gratefully accepted, and then I make my apologies.
Earlier that day, Mr Nah of the Seoul Design Foundation had told me that Seoul drivers have become calmer in the last few years. He hasn’t met my taxi driver. I make the journey home to the hotel almost literally in double-quick time. The speedometer was touching 120 as we sped across the Han River, and I distinctly saw a 60 speed limit. No matter. The roads are empty, and we’re soon back in familiar territory. And 13,000 Won for a 25 minute cab ride is not bad at all.
It’s past midnight, and the orange pojangmachas off Insadong are full of late night soju-drinkers. Nothing rowdy, nothing raucous, and plenty of middle-aged women having their fair share of liquor. The streets are quiet, and those who have finished drinking stand patiently waiting for the next taxi home. Tomorrow, being children’s day, there’s little need for them to get up unless they have young ones to spoil.
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Wednesday 5 May 2010. It’s an early start as we have a lot of ground to cover. We are joined by Yoseph Moon and Miss Lee from the Korean Culture and Information Service. The extra passengers mean that we can now use the left hand lane of the expressway leaving Seoul, reserved for vehicles containing at least six people. Yes, the arithmetic is not exact, but neither are the traffic cameras very good at counting. The road is sometimes flanked by tall concrete walls, up which creepers are climbing, to shield the neighbouring apartment blocks from traffic noise.
We soon emerge from Seoul into plains where young vines are growing, before a gentle climb into the hills. Mauve jindalle (진달래) and bright red azalea break the slightly monotony of the road.
We are heading into unknown territory. As far as the standard Korea guide books are concerned, Hadong and Sancheong Counties in the South West of Gyeongsangnam-do might as well not exist. Frommers, Insight Guide, Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide seem to ignore both counties, other than as a starting or finishing point for a walk on the Jirisan Trail. Information in English about the history and geography of the region is hard to obtain. For facts about the area I am totally dependent on the information and anecdote conveyed by my local tour guides, which I am unable to fact-check with many written sources. So if some of the historical detail in the accounts which follow seems either lightweight or fanciful, it’s because the region is under-explored by the foreigner. I feel like a Herodotus, naively wandering round a strange land relaying all the magical tales I hear from the natives. Maybe there is some truth in them. And maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to go back and try to cross-check against alternative sources another day.
Our first destination is the Hadong Green Tea festival. It’s a long road south, and we go on a huge detour to find a samgyetang restaurant for lunch, only to discover samgyetang was “off”. The pork bulgogi was fine, but if we had known better we would have headed straight for Hadong and sampled the many local delicacies and green tea-inspired dishes in the huge food tent at the Green Tea Festival. Next time we shall know better.
- Available at Seoul Selection.