Sancheong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, Wednesday 18 May 2016, 10am
Sancheong -> Sacheon -> Suncheon
We say our farewells to the mayor and tourism chief at the County administrative offices. Kyung-sook is driving me to Suncheon – about 90 minutes’ leisurely drive away – so that I can meet up with Insoon. She is scheduled to arrive in Suncheon at 12:30 on a bus from Seoul to join me on my trip in a rental car to Haenam-gun. Another year, Kyung-sook herself might have been my companion (and probably also driver) for the trip, but she needs to look after the builders who are constructing her kiln. As a talented potter, the ability to fire her own vessels is important, and I am perfectly happy not to drag her away from her project.
We stop for coffee at Sacheon rest area. I browse the ppongtchak CD stall and select a couple of choice compilations (including the top hits of Cho Hang-jo, a trot singer who is a fellow goodwill ambassador for Sancheong County) for the road later. Alas, I will not be able to listen to them: Insoon, a Big Bang fan, would later threaten to get back on the bus to Seoul if I so much as open the shrink-wrap.
A notable feature of the Sacheon rest area is the ex-airforce Phantom jet that stands at the edge of the car park as you drive to get your petrol. Sacheon is known for his aero industries – much of the manufacturing of Korea’s fighter jets is done here – but nevertheless it’s not something you expect to encounter when you pull off the expressway for a comfort break.
We arrive at Suncheon’s main bus terminal shortly before Insoon – long enough to ring the car rental place to make sure everything is in order for my pick-up. Insoon’s bus arrives bang on time. We transfer her suitcase to the boot of Kyung-sook’s car and look for some lunch in the area. Just across the road is a homely place that fits the bill.
I don’t have much appetite. I’m wondering whether Kyung-sook and Insoon are going to get on (I don’t really need to worry on that score), but more importantly I’m getting nervous about the prospect of the next couple of days. I am driving an unknown rental car in a strange country on the wrong side of the road. Would Insoon be a nervous passenger? She confessed that she had been alarmed at my lack of driving experience on the right hand side of the road. I had tried to reassure her that I was perfectly happy driving in Manhattan in a hire car about 15 years previously. Rather than being comforted that I had been able to navigate the native driving style in the Big Apple (which I have always regarded as pretty poor and erratic) she was concerned that my experience was not more recent.
Neither of us particularly wanted to drive, and Insoon had gallantly offered to do the lion’s share – she had even taken some informal driving lessons in preparation – but I wasn’t sure how serious she was. I knew I’ll be happy driving once I’m out in the countryside, but I was worried about driving out of Suncheon, where the traffic would be denser and the other drivers unpredictable. I was also worried that the rental place might find some fault with my international drivers licence (it had been so easy to get that it didn’t seem that it could have much official value. And I was sure that my photo should have been stamped into place: it looked as if it could have been forged.)
All of which meant that I’m not really concentrating on the food. Kyung-sook, however, who will be heading back to Sancheong, has no such concerns. She is tucking in to lunch with relish, and finds the rice particularly good. She asks the ajumma in charge of the restaurant where she sources it. “The market across the road,” comes the reply. A transaction is done. I pay for the lunch. The ajumma rings her rice supplier. Kyung-sook walks back to the bus station to get her car, and just as she pulls up at the restaurant a man arrives from the market with a 40kg sack of rice on a trolley. Some cash changes hands and the sack is loaded with a thud into Kyung-sook’s boot. Amazing Korean-style service.
Kyung-sook drives us to the Lotte Rentacar shop where she leaves us to pick up the car while she returns to Sancheong.
I would definitely not have been able to do all this without a Korean friend. While the process was relatively straightforward, I simply do not have the language skills. Of course, the clerk in the rental office did not have any English – it would have been unreasonable to expect him to. Nor was he particularly familiar with an international drivers licence (or at least the UK version of it). I can’t imagine they get many foreigners wanting to rent cars. Insoon was able to convince him that the date stamped on the front (12 May 2016) was in fact the start date, not the expiry date, and that was just about the last hurdle.
He fitted the car with an English language SatNav, which we soon reject in favour of a Korean one (so much easier to plug in the addresses), and while Insoon figures out how to programme our first destination I work out where the headlight, indicator and other critical controls are in my white KIA K3.
There’s no excuse for further delay. I pluck up all my courage and start driving. And once we are on our way the SatNav figures out which way we need to go. Of course, my first instruction is to do a U turn down a narrow side street.
Suncheon -> Usuyeong, Haenam-gun
I gradually get used to the car and the navigation system. Of course, I’m tempted to drive perilously close to the side of the road, because I’m used to there being much less car to the right of me. If Insoon is alarmed at my driving ability she is generous and strong-willed enough to hide her distress, and over the coming miles we actually get to enjoy the drive.
As we drive westwards along the expressway the scenery is easy on the eye and sometimes spectacular. At more or less the half-way point on our drive, Insoon and I remark on the unusual, craggy shape of the mountain in front of us. This was Wolchulsan, which is in the centre of a national park which spans Gangjin and Yeongam counties. As we admire the view and Insoon tells me the meaning of Wolchulsan (월출산 – moonrise mountain), in that very instant I manage to miss the exit from the expressway that the SatNav wanted us to take.
I wasn’t overly concerned: there were two potential routes to where I wanted to go (the bridge to Jindo): either the slightly more direct, but possibly slower, route through the north of Haenam County, or to carry on almost to Mokpo on the expressway and then turn southwards along the coast. The latter was further on the map, but we would be covering much of the Haenam road on day 3 in the deep south. The SatNav had intended to send us through Haenam County, and my fortuitous lapse in concentration meant that we ended up going the way I wanted to go all along.
As we hit the sea just south of Mokpo, the water was perfectly calm, and this serenity was to last for our entire stay in Haenam. We drive along barrages and over bridges – of themselves rather ugly, but the water, the surrounding landscape and curves of the hills and distant islands induce a feeling of calm, if one were needed after such a relaxing cruise down the highway from Suncheon. The sun is now beginning to get lower, but there are plenty of hours left in the day, and the light reflecting off the sea adds to the sense of well-being.
Our challenge was now to get to the various sites related to Yi Sun-shin’s major victory against the Japanese in 1597, around the Jindo Bridge area. In my mind’s eye, I knew where it was on the map. But SatNavs are not always programmed with useful tourist destinations. Instead, we had given it the only precise address we had: it was the address, extracted from the Cultural Heritage Administration website, of the Monument for the Victory at Myeongnyang Battle, Treasure No.503: 34, Usuyeongan-gil, Munnae-myeon, Haenam-gun. As we got closer to Jindo Bridge the road signage, in the internationally-standard brown colour for heritage and tourist sites, started pointing the way to where we thought we wanted to go, but our SatNav had other ideas. We decided to follow the SatNav, which in a way was correct: it took us through a tangle of almost-undriveable low-rise residential streets to the exact location of the stele. I was beginning to lose faith that we were getting anywhere useful, and pulled into a small parking place in an open space filled by a rocky plateau. As it happened, we had arrived.
The Monument for the Victory at Myeongnyang Battle
In my time I have seen many stone tablets housed in specially-constructed traditional-style dancheong-painted pagoda-like sheds. This was one of them, maybe slightly larger than the average, and topped with an ornamental design of dragons and clouds, but otherwise an unremarkable object standing in a rocky space in a residential area.
According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, this memorial stone was inscribed in 1686 (during the reign of King Sukjong) and “includes a detailed account of how Admiral Yi encamped in Byeokpajeong Pavilion of Jindo, and how in 1597… he exploited the swift current between Usuyeong Naval Headquarters and Jindo to defeat a fleet of 133 Japanese ships with his 12 ships.” It was originally erected locally and was subsequently moved to the Gyeongbokgung in Seoul during the Japanese colonial period. It moved again to the old site of the Usuyeong naval headquarters in Haenam in 1947 and ended up in its current, rather incongruous, location in 2011. It is not a space that you would naturally gravitate towards.
The site looked as if the heritage authorities were in the middle of doing something to it – tarting it up to make it look more appealing – but I can’t imagine that anything they do will make it more worth a detour. Still, it’s only a two minute drive, if that, from the main tourist site. From the stele we could see a brown road sign which pointed the way to where we wanted to be, so we returned to the car, dispensing with the technology and trusting to the signage. Sure enough, just as we approached the bridge to Jindo there was a left turn to a car park and a ticket kiosk which charged a couple of thousand won to enter the site.
The Monument for the Victory at Myeongnyang Battle, Haenam, is Treasure No.503