The return home, with thanks to all who made the trip special.
Eulji-ro, Seoul, Monday 16 June, 8am. My last morning in Seoul, and I was seriously hung over. I had arranged to meet the Seoul bureau chief of my favourite newspaper for breakfast: he had suggested that we meet at my hotel, not far from his offices.
As 8:30 approached I was really not in the mood for eating or talking, but I put a brave face on it and we take our seat in the restaurant and approach the substantial breakfast buffet. At the Embassy garden party on Saturday one wag had advised me to look out for the hairiest man in the press corps, on the basis of which I had been expecting at least a shaggy beard. So it was somewhat unexpected when my date turned up to be respectably clean-shaven. The hirsute parts of his body, if there were any, were concealed.
I pour myself a glass of water and a glass of orange juice and return quietly to the table, while my colleague piles his plate high. He tucks into his food and conversation with relish, and I am unable to match him in either. He seems to have an abundance of appetite for both. The clock is ticking, and the time is approaching when I need to check out and catch the airport limo bus, but still my companion is enthusiastically talking. Eventually I have to say my farewells. I sign for our meal, wincing as I notice that, being charged for two buffets, I am effectively paying around $100 for an orange juice.
I check out, and am keen to make sure I get on a timely limo bus. Have I got time to take my bill up to the accounts office and reclaim the 10% refund off the bill that is available to tourists? Do I know how long the procedure will take? I don’t want to take the risk, and so resign myself to just having drunk the most expensive glass of orange juice ever.
The limo bus is the usual efficient service, and I check in at the airport in good time, making a last thank-you call to Kyung-sook. At the airport in the upstairs transit area there is a somewhat bemusing hangeul exhibition which I briefly look round. My hangover is finally disappearing, and it is time to board the plane. A rather uninspiring Korean box office success (Face Reader) and a fun but slightly confusing Hong Kong police thriller (White Storm) pass some time on the flight home.
I return to London with mixed feelings. I hadn’t covered nearly as much ground as on previous occasions. But this trip has been somewhat different from the previous ones. I went to say a last farewell to a friend, and in one way it marked the end of a chapter in my relationship with Sancheong County, as her father was no longer mayor. But the new mayor had reappointed me as goodwill ambassador, and I’d had the privilege of cutting the ribbon at the unveiling of the highest temple bell in Korea. I’d made new friends, seen parts of Seoul I’d never seen before, and got more suggestions for travel the next time. So although I was, to be frank, rather lazy in Seoul, I think I did enough to justify my few days there.
As I look back on my trip, it feels like a coda to the first stage of my relationship with Sancheong, and the beginning of something new. The first stage of my encounter started when I went there in 2010 as part of the Ministry of Culture’s Foreign Media Fellowship Programme, when my visit was focused on the Ancestral Rites in Jongmyo with a subsidiary interest in medicinal herbs and green tea in Sancheong and Hadong respectively. This phase was drawing to an end with my 2013 trip, where the focus was the International Traditional Medicine Expo in Sancheong with a subsidiary interest in the other main Joseon Dynasty state ceremony, the rites for the Gods of Land and Grain. The Expo had been the result of years of preparation and planning overseen by the mayor Lee Jae-geun, whose daughter Sena I had befriended in London after my first visit to Sancheong, and a chapter seemed to be closing.
Then, in April 2014 Sena sadly passed away. When she had been in London, she had been my most immediate link with Sancheong, and with her passing something had changed. I had to pay my respects to her family, and it was natural for me to return for the 49th day ceremony marking her death. But as her funeral photograph was carefully placed in the furnace at Anjeoksa, that was the end.
The next day, I had said my formal farewells to her father, in his last week at the County Office, and I had met the new mayor, whose first public engagement – and mine, as newly appointed ambassador – was the ribbon-cutting of the new bell at Beopgyesa, a temple which seems to be going from strength to strength. What my new engagement with Sancheong will be, I do not know. But I know that I shall return in 2015.
Thanks to David Mason, Sora Kim-Russell, Yi Chul-jin, Simon Mundy, Kim Young-ha, Kim In-suk, Suzy Chung, Paul Matthews and others for setting aside the time to meet with me, and to Yoon Jin-gu for accompanying me up Jirisan for the third time. Special thanks to Baek Kyung-sook who is my unofficial co-ambassador in Sancheong and my only fluently English-speaking friend in the county. And of course to my wife Louise for letting me go off on my travels and pretending that she doesn’t mind too much.