In which we make our way to Sancheong County via a literary lunch.
Haeundae Beach, Busan, Saturday 7 June, 8am. The buskers must have been singing until later than 3am. Even though my room was somewhere higher than the 10th floor, the sound insulation was so poor that they might just as well have been right outside my window. With the window open. And the air conditioning didn’t work. So I really didn’t sleep much, and I woke up thoroughly bleary.
My friend Kyung-sook was due to arrive from Sancheong before lunch, and before then I needed to do a couple of blog posts for events that I’d only just found out about, and to email various people in Seoul to start arranging my social calendar for the following week. Normally when I visit Korea I’m slightly better prepared: certain key events or a festival that I want to attend, certain key people I want to meet, are all pretty much locked down in my diary in advance. This time, I am here for a funeral – the final ceremony to say farewell to Sena Lee, the daughter of the mayor of Sancheong, and a friend of mine from London.
The time that I would normally spend in advance of a trip planning my schedule has instead been spent in more important ways: gathering together a book of condolence from friends and academic colleagues who knew her in London. So I have arrived in Korea unprepared for a 10 day stay, and need all the time I can get to ensure those days are not wasted.
Time is flying by, and before I knew it, Kyung-sook has arrived at the hotel, having driven from Sancheong, and it’s time to check out. I grumble to the front desk about the eye-watering price, the poor sound insulation and air-conditioning. I get little sympathy, but at least Kyung-sook is allowed to park her car for free while we head out to meet our friend for lunch, hailing a taxi as we leave.
Outside, the streets are buzzing, and the traffic along Haeundae’s main drag is slow. But as soon as we turn off to Marine City the roads become empty. We meet up with our lunch date just outside of Hanhwa Resort, one of the huge skyscrapers in the area. Our companion is a novelist who is reasonably recognisable for his distinctive reading glasses. Today he is incognito, hiding behind a stylish pair of shades as we stroll to the local fusion restaurant called 개미 (meaning “Ant”): squid ink pancakes; haemul pajeon with cheese; potato croquettes stuffed with blue cheese accompanied with apple kimchi; and a spicy jjigae made with Jeju Island black pig. The combination of flavours was amazing.
Over chilled Peroni we make pleasant small-talk. He volunteers an opinion that the buskers on Haeundae beach are getting to be a real nuisance – a view with which it was hard to disagree. We talk about his TED Talk and about his Op-eds on Korean society in the New York Times, which he feels will soon be coming to an end: the subjects that the paper is interested in aren’t the ones he wants to write about. We swap restaurant recommendations and travel destinations. I tell him of my longer term plan to bring my wife to Korea for a tour of Korea’s finest gardens. He advises me to include the Garden of Morning Calm (아침고요수목원) in Gapyeong and the Seongnagwon (성락원) in Seoul on the list. And it emerges that he’s looking for a quiet spot in the country to escape the crowds of Busan for the summer to settle down to some writing. Kyung-sook and I, of course, sing the praises of Sancheong as a place for peace and quiet.
The quantity of food defeats me, but given the balmy weather our host insists on taking us to another place for some patbingsu. It’s the sort of place you would only know about if you’re a local. After all, why, if you’re a visitor, would you venture inside a complex of skyscrapers in search of refreshment? But there is refreshment to be had in seemingly the unlikeliest of places.
One of my reasons for coming to Busan – apart from to meet up with friends – was to visit the UN Cemetery and the Busan Museum of Art where the Masterpieces of Modern Korean Painting exhibition is on. But the traffic is so terrible after lunch that we decide to escape from Busan altogether, maybe to return to another day, perhaps Monday after the 49th day ceremony in Sancheong.
We negotiate our way through the traffic towards the inappropriately named Busan Central Bus terminal, located on the northern outskirts of the city. There’s a long stretch of flower shops opposite the bus station, and we need to buy some orchids to decorate the altar for the 49th-day ceremony the next day. Nine pink orchids are crammed into a big ceramic pot, and gaps in the planting filled are with soil. The leaves are sprayed with a fine watery mist. And then, because they are going on a long journey, the pot and flowers are encased in newspaper. Repeat with another big ceramic pot. The ajumma helps us load the pots onto the back seat of the car, and we leave, $120 poorer but with a splendid decoration for the altar.
We are still full from lunch, but we need to have dinner with Kyung-sook’s teacher Min Young-ki and Mr Byun, an old friend from previous visits. We arrive at a restaurant familiar from the previous year shortly before 6pm. Some wonderful Sancheong hanwoo barbecue, with soju. The conversation, among other things, centres on the state of the Korean stock market. People in Korea are worried about the health of Samsung boss Lee Kun-hee, who had emergency heart surgery in early May, and my hosts are concerned that foreigners will be dumping Korean stocks in general and Samsung stock in particular. I always feel nervous that because I work in a bank people think that I have some special wisdom concerning the current and future state of the stock market, interest rates, or the most suitable investment for their retirement years. But I was able to confirm, in this case, that I was not about to sell my Korean investments. I can’t say that my companions were satisfied by my answer, but at least it moved the conversation onwards.
As I stuff myself with meat, I make my usual mistake of forgetting that there will be rice and stew to follow. After dinner we set off to Suseonsa, 수선사, which is to be my overnight stop. I had last visited the temple three years previously when it was still in its early stages of construction. Since then, it has entered into the hospitality business, having built a very stylish pension annex, home to their new Temple Stay programme. We turn off a main road and start driving up a hill, through a busy village of guest houses. We emerge the other side and continue our climb up to the temple.
Kyung-sook says farewell to me, leaving me with a bottle of green tea to see me through the night. I am warned that if I want to make a phone call home, there is no mobile phone signal there, and would need to walk a couple of hundred metres down the hill.
So down the hill I go, to check in with Louise. Returning to the room, it is remarkably peaceful. The guest accommodation is on the edge of a large pond full of lilies, and a low balcony outside tempts you to lie down and look up at the stars – if it wasn’t for the fear of getting bitten by the numerous insects also attracted by the water. It’s a very peaceful spot, but there’s a handful of people on a Buddhist retreat down the corridor who don’t seem to be taking their meditation practice very seriously.
- Google Map of Suseonsa location: 경남 산청군 산청읍 웅석봉로 154번길 102-23 (내리 1117-1번지) (T 055 973 1096)