Saturday, October 2: Early Saturday morning, I venture out on the first leg of a quest to discover the hidden Korea, that of the former war zone. Destination: the southwest of the country, Jeollanam-do province, to see the tea plantations of Boseong and the eco-park of Suncheon Bay. I am lugging a hardback copy of the 2010 book, The Surrendered, by Korean author Chang-Rae Lee, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University. The book was recommended by an editor at MORE magazine, a U.S. magazine for women over 40, who interviewed me a couple of times about reinventing my life by teaching English in South Korea. Whether this editor will actually publish an article based on these interviews is a mystery, as yet to be unraveled.
inside the seobu bus terminal in daegu
on the bus to suncheon from daegu
Since I have a 3-month stretch ahead with virtually no holidays, I have decided I will explore as much of Korea as I can on the yellow- and scarlet-hued autumn weekends. Granted, my destination this time is not a war zone. Maybe this destination never even figured prominently in the Korean war. Maybe. But I think as I am reading this book that there was probably not a place in Korea that was left unscathed. I am trying to dig in deep, to see Korea in a different light, a light probably shadowed still to this day by a war that ravaged this country less than 60 years ago.
I leave my apartment at 6 a.m. to catch the 7:05 bus to Suncheon from the Seobu bus terminal. The bus ride, which I was told would be 3 to 3 1/2 hours, is uneventful, except for the delightful surprise that it is in actuality only 2 1/2 hours! During the ride, I am caught up in the story of June, an 11-year-old Korean girl, who in 1950 has witnessed the death of her mother and sister & the arrest of her father and older brother; on her own, she is caring for her 7-year-old twin brother and sister. June has taken on the responsibility for transporting her siblings safely toward Busan, along with thousands of other refugees fleeing the war. What might have otherwise been a pretty journey through “hills just turning the colors of pumpkin and hay and pomegranate” is in fact a harrowing journey; this 11-year-old girl suffers horribly and ultimately loses both of her siblings in a gruesome train accident along the way.
jacob and peter at the boseong bus terminal
Not happy reading, granted. But I want to see what makes Koreans tick, what in their history makes them the way they are. So I read along, totally engrossed, until I get to Suncheon. Surprise, we’re here already?
At the Suncheon bus terminal, I see another Westerner with red hair and I hear him buy a ticket for Boseong. This is my destination as well. I get on the bus, and in the front seat is a Korean man dressed in black yelling into his cell phone. This is not so abnormal in Korea; many Koreans yell into their cell phones as a matter of course. But it becomes quickly evident that this man is furious. I don’t know exactly what happens, but I think possibly the bus driver comes on board and tells him to quiet down. By this time, I am seated about 1/3 of the way back from the front of the bus. Suddenly the yelling man begins to punch the bus driver, forcing him toward the back; he pushes the driver into a seat maybe 4 rows behind me. The yelling man is pummeling the poor bus driver who is cowering in the seat up against the window. This violent man then pulls off his shirt, revealing tattoos on his arm and back, and grabs the bus driver around the throat and is knocking him upside the head, so that his head is bouncing like a rubber ball against the window.
me with the ajumas at the boseong bus terminal
Everyone is sitting in their seats watching, floored by this spectacle. I stand up along with a Korean girl. I think briefly about stepping in the middle but realize this would be really stupid. I think this man is so furious he wouldn’t hesitate to hit a woman. I am seriously afraid this guy will kill the poor bus driver. The Korean girl and I look at each other and we both get off the bus to find help. She speaks to some guys standing in the bus terminal (they look like employees at the terminal possibly) and I am yelling and making fighting gestures and beckoning them to follow. The men follow us on board. The man is still beating on the bus driver. Both of them are yelling angrily, but the bus driver is definitely the weaker one and is basically just taking the beating. The bus terminal men enter the fray and pull the two apart and finally, they are able to get the crazy guy off the bus. The bus driver, clearly shaken, goes to the front and then starts to collect tickets, front to back. Surprisingly, he doesn’t look bloodied or bruised, but he’s quite obviously an emotional wreck. He says something to me, and a Korean guy sitting nearby tells me in English that the bus driver is thanking me.
on the bus from boseong to yulpo beach (we disembark at the tea farm)
As we take off, I catch the eye of the red-head guy in the back. We start commiserating about the fight, trying to figure out what precipitated it. He says, “Did you see that guy’s stomach? It had scars all over it. He’s been in a lot of fights.” We can’t figure out exactly what started it. I tell him I was thinking of stepping into the middle; I thought they wouldn’t dare hit a girl. The red-head says he was told that, as a foreigner, if there is ever any trouble to NEVER get involved because foreigners are too often blamed as instigators.
a farmer going to the Boseong 5-day market (Jacob says, “I think he is interested in you.”
On our one hour ride to Boseong, we talk a lot: the red-head whose name is Peter, the English-speaking Korean guy who goes by the English name of Jacob, and me. The fight has excited us such that we have become garrulous. Jacob is full of questions about both of us, asking Peter and me what we are doing in Korea. Jacob himself is a Korean who has been living and working in the Philippines for 10 years. He is 50 years old, married, and has three children: a 20-year-old daughter, and 18-year-old twins. He is in “trade” – mainly vitamins and health foods. He asks my age, but I say it’s a mystery. He says he is here in Korea working and also exploring on weekends parts of the country he hasn’t seen before. He tells me he is headed to the tea plantations for the day and I say that’s where I’m going too.
the view from the bus window
Peter, who is 27, is from New Brunswick, Canada, and has been teaching in Korea for one month now. He teaches in a public middle school in Boseong but not with EPIK; he says a Canadian organization has the contract for Jeollanam-do province. He tells me that in Boseong they have a 5-day market. Every 5 days, everyone gathers their goods together to sell or to barter. Today is the market day. I ask about the hotel situation in Boseong and Peter graciously says I’m welcome to stay in his apartment as he has two bedrooms. I tell him he is really sweet, but I’m not sure where I want to stay yet and I don’t want to intrude on him as he barely knows me. Anyway, once we arrive in Boseong, Peter takes off for his home, and Jacob and I wait for the bus to Yulpo Beach, which will drop us at the tea plantations.
At the bus terminal, Jacob motions me to sit on a bench with some ajumas for a picture. I am happy for this as I’ve been trying to surreptitiously take pictures of ajumas but have never actually gotten one full on with their awareness and participation. They are quite happy to smile and pose; afterward I show them each the picture and the one wearing a pink shirt holds on to my camera, as if she wants to keep it. She tells Jacob she wants a copy of the picture. They ask Jacob if we are husband and wife. This is only the first of such questions thrown our way throughout the day. Each time we laugh and say, no, we just met on the bus!
live chickens boxed for the 5-day market in Boseong
On the derelict bus, hardscrabble Korean passengers are all carrying bags or boxes of products to take to the 5-day market: dried chili peppers, live chickens (!), rice, roots and various leafy vegetables. They all disembark well before the tea farms. The bus driver even makes one stop just to drop off a huge plastic bag full of red chili peppers. I wonder if the chili peppers had to pay the bus fare.
Jacob and I get dropped at the entrance to Daehan Dawon, touted as Korea’s one and only “green tea farm” theme park. We go into a little shop and the lady there serves us some green tea to taste. I’m always surprised that green tea tastes more like a broth than the tea I’m accustomed to. The lady asks Jacob’s age; he tells her 50 and she tells him he looks very young. She asks him my age, and he explains to her that apparently it’s a very sensitive issue! She then asks us if we are husband and wife, and we both laugh and say that we just met on the bus. We drink our tea and walk through a lovely canopy of trees toward the plantation. This place is so lushly green, with its millions of tea plants and its cedar, cypress, yew, ginkgo, maple and camellia trees.
sampling tea at the tea shop
In 1939, a study concluded that Boseong is an ideal place to cultivate green tea. Optimal conditions include annual rainfall of more than 60 inches (1500 mm), porous and permeable soil, cool weather with a great daily temperature range, and high humidity. Soon after the study, tea planting started across the region. But, during the Korean War, all the fields were ravaged.
It turns out I am right: no place in Korea was left unscathed by the war. In 1957, the tea industry started again. Now there are 5.8 million tea plants growing on this green tea farm. In 2005, the plantation’s tea was certified as organic.
Jacob at the tea plantations
Jacob and I wander leisurely through the lush green carpets of tea bushes and then climb up a steep hill to a vantage point. He says, It smells so good! I sniff the air and I can’t smell anything. 😦 We meet a family along the way, and Jacob comments that the man is good-looking but the wife is not. He thinks it is not a good match. I say that maybe she is really a great person, beautiful inside. I say that looks do not matter so much. He hesitantly agrees. I walk beside the wife for some of the climb and she in fact seems quite lovely and kind. She even offers her hand to me on a particularly steep set of steps.
the tea plantations
the tea plantations
the tea plantations
the tea plantations
After walking up and down and taking multitudes of photos, we return to the bottom. Jacob tells me his wife works as a volunteer teacher for a Christian missionary organization. She teaches elementary school. Apparently when their children leave home, his wife would like to return to Korea where, because of her years of teaching, she could make a lot of money. But Jacob tells her he can provide and that God would like it best if she continued her volunteer teaching. Both he and his wife are really concerned that their children don’t know enough about Korean culture. Jacob also tells me he went on a trip with a church group to Turkey to follow St. Paul’s travels. He went to many of the same places I did, but he lost his USB with all his photos on it. Jacob also tells me that this morning he prayed to God that he would meet someone today to explore Korea with. He says his prayer was answered because he met me.
me at the tea plantations
I love the curves and colors
me & tea
me and the plush green tea….
sweeping view of the tea plantations
me with the tea again
a little Korean boy at the tea plantations
When we get to the bottom, we decide to eat some lunch. I have bibimbap and Jacob eats black bean sauce on noodles. I don’t know why, but this dish keeps popping up in my face of late. Everywhere I go, people are offering me this dish. I’m not that crazy about it, but the Koreans seems to love it. My friend Kim tells me it’s a Chinese dish, but it’s not really served in China. I guess the Chinese came to Korea and created it just for Koreans!
We return to the tea shop to retrieve our bags, with the intention of taking the Yulpo Beach bus further south, where there are supposed to be even more beautiful tea plantations. The proprietor tells us the bus will come at 2:50. We wait until 3:30 and then decide we can’t wait any longer. Jacob has to go to Gwangju and then to Daejeon this evening to meet some friends and I want to go back to Suncheon and find a hotel before it starts raining. So we cross under the bridge to catch the bus back to Boseong. In Boseong, Jacob goes on his merry way toward his friends. I am disappointed not to see the next tea farm, but, as it turns out, I finally arrive back in Suncheon just before a downpour. I have to find a hotel and with the help of a patient and kind-hearted lady at the Suncheon terminal tourist information, I find the BMW Motel for 30,000 won.
the BMW Motel in Suncheon
When I walk up to the BMW Motel, smoke is pouring out of the parking lot into the entryway. The proprietor is using a fire extinguisher on the source of the fire; it looks like a trashcan and some bedding from one of the rooms. He sprays it with the fire extinguisher and comes into the hotel with me to check me in. I tell him, using gestures, that I want to see the room before paying, but he simply cannot understand and keeps sticking out his hand for my money. While this failure to communicate is transpiring, I see the fire has flared up again, and I gesture wildly to him that the fire has revived. He doesn’t understand any of my gestures, so I get wilder and more demented-looking in my miming: Come! Come! Fire!! He is utterly clueless. Finally, he gets up from behind his little glass enclosed cage and comes out, grabbing the fire extinguisher again. Meanwhile, I call a friend to translate for me that I want to see the room before paying. Finally. I see the room, it’s okay, and I pay the 30,000 won. I leave my bag and stupidly head out into the rain and the impending darkness to go to Suncheon Bay. I am hoping that by the time I return to the BMW the fire will be totally extinguished. I am hoping the whole motel doesn’t burn down in my absence.
reading The Surrendered at the BMW Motel
Little do I know that by the time I finally get to the bay, it will be totally dark and pouring down rain! (I’m obviously not yet ready to accept the shorter days of fall!) I don’t want to be dropped here in the middle of nowhere, but the driver gestures vehemently that I must get off. Luckily there is a covered bus stop and a few other people, so I wait with them for a good 20 minutes to go back to Suncheon. I catch the exact same bus with the same bus driver who forced me to get off in the first place. In Suncheon, I find a Paris Baguette, eat a shrimp and vegetable bun, buy a beer, and go to my room, where I plan to relax, read, and watch TV.
Pathetically, I fall asleep at 9:00, only to be awakened at 9:30 by a series of texts from my friend Anna, who went today to the Andong Mask Dance Festival; she and Seth and their friends had been dropped off in the pouring rain in Andong and almost missed their bus back to Daegu. As I settle in to sleep, I get another series of texts from a flight attendant I know from Egypt Air, then a call from my Egyptian friend Mithad in Seoul, then some drunken texts from a fellow EPIK teacher who I had drunkenly texted when I was at Gaya-san Summer Camp in August. By this time I am so wound up that I can’t sleep, so I read some more of my book. This book is too intense to read when trying to fall asleep! I am up till well after midnight.
Sunday, October 3: In the morning, I sleep in a bit late and immediately start reading The Surrendered. I love waking up on a weekend morning and reading a good book. After about an hour, I think maybe I should check out the tourist map of Suncheon I got yesterday from the TI office. On the map, I see all kinds of things I would like to do; I regret not having studied the map the night before and made a plan to get up early to explore. I think I would also like to see the Naganeupseong Folk Village and the Songgwangsa Temple, after I see Suncheon Bay. After all my travels in Korea using the rural bus system, I should know by now that this is wildly optimistic.
Entrance to Suncheon Bay
pretty flowers at Suncheon Bay
view through a lattice
more pink flowers
I arrive at Suncheon Bay at 10:30 a.m. and start to explore. The bay is a coastal wetland with a large tidal flat, reed beds and salt marshes nestled between mountains and ribboned with rivers. Further inland are glowing chartreuse rice fields. I walk through the grasses along the wooden walkway and see fiddler crabs in the mud and some beautiful cranes. It’s warm but a breeze is whipping the sea grasses around. I love these grasses against the backdrop of the mountains and the rivers. Koreans are out in force today and as always, dressed to the hilt in their hiking clothes. Because the sun has come out after the rain, and it is warm, many women are carrying umbrellas.
koreans walking the walkways, decked out in full hiking gear and carrying umbrellas for shade
Koreans walking along the boardwalk
I figure I will wander along the walkways to the other side and then turn around, but when I get there, I realize there is a hike up the mountain to an observatory. There are two paths, “the meditation road” and the “hard road.” I choose the hard road. My Korean friend later tells me the actual translation of “the hard road” is the “road that is hard on the knees.” I take the hard road, thinking it will certainly be steeper, and thus shorter. However, when I come back down by the meditation path, I realize both paths are about the same distance. One is just steeper ~ all steps!
the meditation road and the hard road
It is such a lovely hike. The leaves have not really started changing yet, just a few red exclamation points here and there. From the observation point, the view is sweeping & fabulous and I can see some red tips to the sea grasses from above.
the view of the wetlands from above
view of Suncheon Bay
another view along the hike
more of the bay
walking back down the trail
I am so happy on this day. I have had an adventure on my trip, I have heard from good friends, and I have been hiking and exploring outdoors in nature, breathing fresh air, and getting exercise. I love to be outdoors in the fall!
back among the grasses
coming back to the wetlands from the hike
Three hours later, I take the bus back to Suncheon and I realize it is just too late to try to see the other sights. I may be able to take a bus to one of them, but then I could never depend on finding a timely bus back to Suncheon. Ah, if only I had a car! But, part of the adventure this time is riding the buses, witnessing a bus brawl, meeting farmers and ajumas going to the 5-day market, and making new friends. This is the way I love to travel, being alone and open to any adventure that presents itself. This is why a trip like this is so much better than the organized tour I took to China.
pretty, pretty grasses
Here I can meet the locals as well as fellow travelers, ride in buses with fighting men, boxes of live chickens, bags of chili peppers and older gentlemen who take their hats off when they are photographed. I can meet ajumas who want to steal my camera because they are so captivated by themselves in my pictures. I can see the real everyday Korea and know that these older people I meet along the way have experienced hardships that I hope I will never see in my lifetime.
a grounded boat
I’m still only about halfway through The Surrendered; the story has veered into many directions, and follows three main characters: June, Hector and Sylvie; its locale moves from Korea to New Jersey to Manchuria. It’s a complicated but fascinating story about the effects of war on people’s psyches. Several parts have given excellent descriptions of the Korea I have come to know. At one point, Hector, who has fought in the mountains of Korea, ruminates about the cold: “He knew the cold in Korea, at least in the mountains in the far north, how it seeped into you and then resided with an unrelenting grip…” My own father, who also served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War told me before I came here that all he could remember about Korea was that it was the coldest place he’s ever been. I arrived here in February, and it was bitter, unrelentingly cold. That memory makes me dread my last couple of months here, especially January and February.
more swaying grasses
Hector also muses about the mountains of Korea, which are certainly ubiquitous: “The grounds of the orphanage were set on a low and wide plateau amid steeper, higher hills and mountains that ranged across much of the country. The land was a lesson in hills, one right after the next.”
The book reminds me how tenuous life can be. There is normalcy, and then, suddenly, there is not. War does that. The atrocities people are capable of inflicting on one another during extreme situations like war are beyond belief. Now, when I see the old farmers and the ajumas in Korea, I know they have seen horrors in their lives that we could never imagine. As time goes by, the children and grandchildren, those children I teach everyday in my classroom, will forget. I just hope the 50+ year armistice between North and South Korea holds, or is someday resolved, so that this resilient country won’t have to suffer such hardships again.
To get to the tea plantations from Daegu, here’s what you do:
1) Take the 805 bus to Seobu bus terminal. There, get on the bus to Suncheon. It takes ~2 1/2 hours and costs 14,500 won.
2) In Suncheon, take the bus to Boseong. It takes about an hour and costs 5,800 won.
3) From Boseong, take the bus to Yulpo Beach (tell the driver you need to get off at the tea farm) which takes about 15 minutes and costs 1,100 won.
i adore this place 🙂