In which I say farewell to the retiring County mayor, meet the incoming one, and get given my first public engagement.
Sancheong-yo, Sancheong-gun, Monday 9 June, 7:00am. The sleeping pill ensured that I got a good night’s sleep. And the guest bathroom, with plenty of towels, is a luxury. The day is already warm at 7:30 am as I step out into the garden into phone Louise. My host is pottering around in the garden, while his wife is preparing breakfast. I begin to feel guilty, because I know she will be preparing a feast.
Sure enough, soon Kyung-sook and Mr Byun arrive, and we go inside to a table laden with food. Doenjang jjigae, pyogo mushrooms, wild Jeju abalone sautéed in garlic, fried fish, and sundry other side dishes. My host goes to fetch a special condiment: in a small glass jar is what look like tea leaves. They are little shavings of seaweed, to be stirred into the red bean rice to give it a salty tang – apparently a gift from one of his pupils, the former Japanese prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro.
Having said farewell to Sena’s mother the previous night, this morning I have an appointment at the County Office to say farewell to Sena’s father, who is in his last week as mayor. There is of course the language barrier, but we express our thanks to each other and best wishes for the future.
As we sit in the mayor’s office, a succession of officials join us round the circular table for tea: the fire chief, the police chief, the tourism chief and more, and finally the new mayor himself. This is my opportunity to find out whether my appointment as goodwill ambassador is about to come to an end. The term of the appointment had always been a little bit vague to me, and I had half thought that when the mayor who appointed me moved on, I too would move on. But it soon became clear that my appointment was more permanent. And in fact my return to Seoul was delayed by a few hours so that I could participate in my first official engagement. The next morning there was to be an unveiling of the highest temple bell in Korea. Beopgyesa, where I had stayed overnight twice previously when hiking on Jirisan, is seeing a major expansion, and a helicopter had hoisted a huge brass bell to the otherwise inaccessible location.
This was an opportunity not to be missed, and all thoughts of returning to Busan to see the UN cemetery or the Art exhibition later that day were hastily shelved. Instead, my thoughts turned to figuring out what time of day I would get in to Seoul the following evening, if I was going to be hiking up to Beopgyesa, cutting the ribbon on the temple bell, and hiking back down again, before catching the bus back to the capital. With no local SIM card, re-arranging my dinner appointment for the following evening was going to be an expensive affair.
Having said a temporary farewell to the new mayor – I would see him again the following morning at the temple – it was time to say another farewell: to the director of the Sancheong Oriental Medicine Institute. I had expected Director Kim to have moved on to another appointment by now, but an unfortunate fire at the institute had required him to stay on for a few extra months.
We have lunch together, and Yoon Joon-gu from the county office also joins us. Once more he is pressed into service to be my hiking companion on Jirisan. We have a pleasant lunch of samgyeopsal washed down with makgeolli before walking back to the institute to kill some time.
I am introduced to the chief executive of one of Sancheong’s traditional medicine companies. He is himself a renowned doctor. It appears that I am to be given an impromptu consultation.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asks. He didn’t seem too interested when I said my neck was giving me a bit of trouble – mainly brought on by sleeping on floors in Korea, but also by my slovenly seating posture at the office. He was more interested in possible trouble in my internal organs which, as far as I am aware, are in perfect working order.
He took my hands in his, and started probing them gently with his fingers. “What blood type are you?” This was a surprise. I thought such questions were confined to teenage couples who were trying to determine whether they were compatible or not. I have no clue what my blood type is, though I assume if I were to look at my last health check report it would be in there somewhere. I am a sad disappointment to Korean practitioners. I seem to remember that, twelve years previously, when having my fortune told on Haeundae beach, I was asked what time of day I was born – another piece of unimportant information to a westerner, but which is vital for having an accurate horoscope. As a result the future foretold for me was rather generic.
Then: “how many times do you pee?” I couldn’t figure out whether he was asking specifically about during the night, or during a 24 hour period. But whatever the specific question was, my answer was unsatisfactory – because clearly it depends on how much I’ve had to drink, which can vary day to day depending on, well, whether I’ve had a few pints of beer or just a glass or two of wine.
It appears, though, that the doctor was worried about my kidneys, and I was told I had to get them checked out as soon as possible after I got home. I rather wish I’d been spared the diagnosis, but what’s done is done.
Now that I have an official engagement for the county, tonight I am to be put up at the county’s expense. We return to the Donguibogam Village, to the very chalet in the recreation forest where I had stayed the previous year. I dump my bags and Kyung-sook takes me into town to run some errands and to meet an even more pressing need: jet lag is catching up on me and I need coffee. And not having been expecting to go hiking this year, I was completely unprepared for tomorrow’s ascent to Beopgyesa. Mr Yoon had agreed to provide me with some trainers and a hiking stick, but I needed to get some knee braces for the descent, without which in the past I was not permitted to attempt the hike – though many Koreans seem to manage it just fine without.
We buy orthopaedic straps at one of the many pharmacies in town, and select some pastries for breakfast the following day, and then, desperate for coffee, I ask Kyung-sook to take me to the local café, where she will buy some takeaway espresso that we can dilute with hot water the following morning to wake us up.
The coffee shop is one of those wonderfully relaxed independent outlets that Korea seems to do so well. In countless films or TV dramas there are these homely coffee shops with a friendly barista and excellent patisserie where people can hang out, chat, or surf on the free wi-fi. Kyung-sook buys all her coffee beans at this particular shop, and as I settle down to some emailing to organise my social calendar once I get to Seoul I sip at the best macchiato I’ve ever had in Asia.
Dinner is with Kyung-sook and Mr Yoon in the centre of Sancheong town: a noted sashimi place. We are seated in the room where clearly the women of the restaurant sleep at night. At one end of the room is a dressing table laid out with all sorts of potions, while the main wall is dominated by an impressive mother-of-pearl inlaid wardrobe.
The food is overwhelming. The centrepiece is a large whole fish which has been prepared as sashimi, so fresh that it is still slightly twitching. Unable to look it in the eye, we cover its face with a sesame leaf. There are countless other shellfish and side dishes to accompany it, including some of Sancheong’s pretty, jade green freshwater snails. One of the more unusual delicacies was a giant bloody shellfish to be eaten raw. In Korean its name is 피조개… literally “Blood Clam”, though it is sometimes known as the Blood Cockle in English. The flesh is rather crunchy, and after having forced it down you are supposed to drink the blood as well.
It is something that I will only do once in my life. It helped that there was plenty of the local soju – Choeun Day (좋은 데이) – to wash it down. And maybe because of the clams we get through rather too much of it.
We failed to finish the main dish, the whole sashimi’d fish; and as if to punish us the remains were taken away and brought back as a bubbling stew.
We head off for 2cha, where several beers were downed, and my memory is a little hazy of how the day ended.