Seoul Man

Cloud Hike

I stop at Socheong peak. There’s another hiker not too far behind me who stopped to write something in his notebook. I didn’t see a single person for the first two hours of this hike, not counting the German youngster I met on the bus ride over, who opted for an easier hike to the waterfalls. I’ve only passed a dozen people since, and most of them at the Yangbok shelter. I contemplate with irony, the signs I had seen at the trailhead of hiking etiquette and rules for sharing the trail, decipherable to me as pictographs but not as language. I contemplate with concern, the neon sign at the upper trail entrance whose only English words in red are “No! No!”

It’s only another 1.2 kilometers to the Daecheongbong peak, the intended destination and turnaround point, but it’s already noon and I’ve been hiking non-stop for the last four hours. The last stretch of terrain, I’m not sure I can refer to it as a trail, was ridiculously steep requiring thoughtfully-provided knotted ropes at points. My calves are burning, my heart is pounding, and my cotton t-shirt is soaked with rain and sweat. I’m not sure when it gets dark here as the sun sets behind the mountains to the west. I’d like to make it back to the parking lot by 5:20 to catch the last bus back to Sokcho, and the only thing I can see, from my current vantage point, is the dull grey of the inside of a cold wet cloud. That last 1.2 kilometers could probably take over an hour in one direction.

I decide I’ve had enough, time to turn around. My decision has an element of concession to fear as much as to practicality. The thought of my pounding heart bursting or slipping on wet rocks or of having to spend the night in a shelter with hordes of ravenous chipmunks crawling over me looking for crumbs is not appealing.

Heading back down the mountain, the pressure is off. I have plenty of time to stop and appreciate the views and capture the scenery on camera. At the Huiunga shelter, I change into a dry t-shirt, hydrate, and share my power bar with an aggressive chipmunk who had the nerve to start crawling up my leg. The rain is picking up from a light mist to a heavy drizzle.

The trip back is much easier on the heart, of course, I don’t even break a sweat in the 15 C temperatures but I’m quickly soaked through by the drizzle and dripping, rain-soaked canopy. The scenery is amazing when spires peek out through the clouds serving as the backdrop to canyons and waterfalls and streams working their way through the boulders. Pines grow horizontally out of the sheer face of the rock turning upward to the sky. It seems like there is a picture around every corner. If I wasn’t worried about protecting the equipment from the rain, I probably would have taken a thousand pictures instead of a mere hundred.

Stats

I can only imagine how beautiful it must look in the fall with the brilliant reds and oranges or even how the rugged peaks look in the clear sky. I take consolation in the fact that I saw it as few others do, from the inside of a cloud, wet and shrouded and lush, an amazing, even mystical hike.

Locating the Intangible Center

I’m just about at the location indicated by the tag on Google Maps for the “Seoul Intangible Cultural Heritage Center”. But as soon as I get there, the blue dot of my position leaps forward or the tag leaps backward. I backtrack. The opposite happens. The blue dot leaps back or the Intangible tag leaps forward. I can’t tell for sure.

I walk slowly, carefully inspecting each building for a sign. Sometimes the entrances are hidden down little alley walkways or up on the second or third floor. I walk around checking all the corners and walkways. Nothing.

I think to myself, because I am the only person I can really think to even in this high tech city, that perhaps it is underground like the GoTo shopping mall. I enter the closest subway access. I find nothing but women’s clothing and shoe stores and underground restaurants. There is nothing intangible about that.

I climb the stairs back up to the street. I check the map again. The tag shows the Intangible Center a couple of blocks away. “How did that happen?” I walk down the two blocks. The Intangible tag is now off to the east by a block. I curse and walk.

As I walk, I check all the signs on the buildings. I stop a few passerby-ers to ask for help. They shrug as if the Intangible Center doesn’t exist. Nothing.

I admit defeat. I throw my hands up in surrender. On my map, I notice the blue dot hovers directly over the tag. Only then do I realize I have found the Intangible Center.

Time to move on to the next destinations: “The Abstract Museum of Art” and the “Ethereal Church of the Divine”

Random Acts of Kindness I

After a long day, I want to sit up on the roof with Max to have a Soju. Max and I walk into our hotel restaurant at the Grid Inn to buy one. The manager, not understanding much English but realizing that we aren’t going have dinner at the restaurant, sends us around the corner to a 7-11 for a much cheaper bottle.

Max tells me about a drink called Samaek, which is Soju mixed with beer, but he doesn’t quite know the recipe. So Max and I buy the necessary ingredients at the 7-11. Upon returning to the hotel and under mild protest from Max that bringing in our purchase to the restaurant is somehow inappropriate, I stop in the restaurant again to ask the manager how to make this drink. He doesn’t understand. He directs me to the front desk to get assistance from a very pretty receptionist named Jin.

She starts to draw on a piece of paper. She draws a shot glass, indicates the shot glass should be filled to a third with Soju. She then draws a beer glass, says to pour the Soju into the beer, and then make a fizz using the chopstick, all in perfectly understandable English. The manager catches on, he fetches two beer glasses, two shot glasses, a bottle opener for the beer and a set of chopsticks. While we wait, Jin informs me that she could handle two Sojus, which given their rather high alcohol content and her petite frame, would be quite an accomplishment. At the reception desk, I proceed to follow the recipe creating my first Samaek of Soju and beer. Jin slams the chopstick into the drink to transform temporarily the drink into a glass of fizz. I told the manager to fetch a couple of more glasses for himself and Jin, he laughs but declines and does not allow Jin to join since she still had to work for a while. There was no mistaking the disappointment in her voice when the manager told she couldn’t have an on the job Samaek .

When I returned to the hotel on my next stay, Jin was working again at the front desk. I fetched her two bottles of Soju from the 7-11 as a gift for her help. I was worried she might get in trouble. She was so happy when she opened the gift, I was surprised. She said she would share it with her mom tonight. I like the thought of her sitting around with her mom drinking Soju from the nice American man.

In the morning, as I checked out, the morning receptionist handed me a nice thank you note from Jin. I’m not thrilled about being referred to as Mr. Angel but the thank you note made it the best 3000 won (less than three dollars) I spent in Korea.

Cruel and Unusual

Severed

Take 1: If there is one thing I like about Korea, it is their righteous treatment of sex offenders. The punishment of dismemberment fits the horrendous crime, though I don’t care too much for the public display of the severed parts, congregating together, almost as if still alive, in an aquarium of formaldehyde solution. I know it sends a message, but it seems so primitive.

Take 2: Highly evolved predators with few natural enemies, sharks nonetheless face a threat today they’ve never seen before: man. The fishing industry kills up to 73 million sharks annually, primarily because their penises are necessary for a traditional Asian delicacy, shark penis soup. Shark fishing is a gruesome effort. Typically, fishermen slice off the penis before tossing the amputated fish overboard. The male shark, unable to mate, falls to the seabed dying slowly of humiliation.

Take 3: (This time I quote from Wikipedia, so maybe this version is actually true.) “Urechis unicinctus ( Korean: 개불) is a species of the marine spoon worm. It is widely referred to as the fat innkeeper worm or the penis fish.[2] The body is about 10–30 cm long, cylindrical in shape and yellowish-brown in color. “

Random Acts of Kindness II

I’m staring down at four brown speckled eggs about a quarter the size of a chicken egg, maybe from a quail? maybe candy? The outside is hard, definitely a shell. What am I supposed to do with it? My server doesn’t speak a lick of English, so I take out the phone, bring up the google translate page, and type “How do I eat?” translating it into Korean.

I almost didn’t stop at this particular restaurant because of Max’s rule to eat at a place where there are a lot of people, but then I walked down to a few other places and nothing is busy. I backtrack. I like this place because the seating has an outdoor patio facing the harbor. It’s not very busy. I’m the only one dining at what I think are her tables.

I hand her the phone. She reads the message. She sits down at my table and proceeds to give me a tutorial on how to eat the food, peeling the hard-boiled eggs for me, telling me what sauces go where, and delicately extracting the spine with all the rib bones intact from the fish, leaving all the edible meat bone-free. She brings out her phone and asks me where I am from, her phone translating Korean into English. She has three sons and seems to be concerned that my son is so far from where I live. We have a little Google conversation, in between her work to serve a family that has opted to sit at a floor table inside the restaurant.

Another group of four Korean men sits at a table next to me. So I go about the business of eating my dinner and drinking my beer as she attends to her customers. English is a rare commodity outside of Seoul, even in touristy areas. I enjoyed the conversation facilitated by technology. Instead of a person just doing her job, I found a person eager to help me appreciate the meal, with a little help from the translation software.

Mothra

It’s 90+ degrees in Seoul, not quite so bad under the Bukhansan canopy. I read that the hike has more people per square foot than any other hike in the world. But for some reason, oh yeah, the 90+ degree heat, we don’t seem to be running into much of a crowd. The few people we do pass on the trail are clad in full toe to head, high tech setups of poles, backpacks, jackets, visors, and pants. It might be state of the art fabric, but wearing all that gear still looks damn hot.

Hike Stats

What the national park lacks in people, it makes up for in moths. I assumed they were butterflies because butterflies are diurnal while moths are nocturnal. But later examination of my pictures shows the telltale feathered antenna and the open wings upon alighting. Alighting is a lot like astopping, only much more graceful.

The moths flit with endless energy, perhaps self-fanning to cool off from the heat. I don’t know the species. It’s not particularly colorful or beautiful. The moths hover over the ground, in the tops of bushes, and in the canopies of the trees. I think of mosquito swarms as a moth flies under my cap. Later, one flies into my mouth as I suck up some of the hot air on our 500-meter ascent. I wonder if the Koreans have the Mexican equivalent of “Moscas no entrada, un boca cerrado”. (Flies don’t enter a closed mouth). Moths don’t enter a closed mouth? I spit the little bugger out. I had to come all the to Korea to discover that I don’t much care for the dish of raw moth. Maybe I would like a cooked moth, I’m trying to keep an open mind.

Real butterflies dash by, Parisian models by comparison to their drab cousins. A hummingbird-sized moth hovers over a bush, before moving into the shadows.

Max and I trudge on. Yes, trudge is the right word for a 500-meter elevation-gain hike in ninety-degree heat. About 500 meters in altitude, we reach the gate, a squared-off doorway, that has some historical significance.

The plan is to head six-tenths of a kilometer west, then come back down another route. I would like to summit, but we are already dehydrated. I get the feeling that Max is only tolerating the hike for my benefit. He is definitely more about connecting with people than with nature.

It turns out that I am not even at the right peak. The higher peak is off in the distance. Going down is a relief. We find a dog guarding a temple, an odd-shaped caterpillar, and a lot more moths.

Once we make it back to the park entrance, we find lunch and a beer and a restaurant just outside the park entrance. For me, the best meal and drink is a reward after a good hike.

The Best of Korea

Sixth Tallest Building in the World
  • A phonetic language that actually makes sense and is learnable. Max is already reading and speaking. I didn’t think to give it much of a try but Max taught me the odd phrase or two. Annayuoenghaseyo.
  • When they hand you money, they do it with two hands.
  • DIT instead of DIY. Do it together instead of do it yourself.
  • Lotte Tower
  • The ticket collector bowing to each car on the train as she moved from one car to the next.
  • A middle-aged woman in her black polka dot middle-aged dress helping us get on the right bus taking the time to walk us to our bus giving directions to the driver.
  • The best public transportation system that I’ve ever ridden on in any city anywhere.
  • A bullet train that speeds along at nearly 300 km/hour.
  • A PC for Max to practice his craft and meet people on just about every corner.
  • Cell phone coverage everywhere I went.
  • Credit card acceptance in every store.
  • The intimacy of stores and shop fronts in the streets without the harassment of vendors in your face. Stores and sidewalks and side streets merged into one. Old women blending into the back of their stalls sitting on uncomfortable-looking benches out of the heat of the midday sun.
  • Traffic that obeys the rules and drivers that don’t drive with their horns.
  • A scarcity of homeless people.
  • Women walking by themselves or sometimes hand-in-hand at night in not-so-crowded walkways looking unconcerned for their safety.
  • Soju.
  • Kimchi.
  • Eating ten different dishes in one meal instead of my usual one meal spread out over ten.
  • Drinking etiquette. You should never pour your own drink. You should watch the other glasses should they need a refill.
  • Finding amazing places to eat in a market or some obscure walkway.

Bon Appetit!

One meal in Jeonju at Songjeong-Won, a Korean traditional full course meal restaurant.

  • seafood pancake,
  • brown squares
  • fish soup
  • pepper with red sauce
  • kimchi with tofu squares
  • sprout soup,
  • clams
  • apple’n’crab as potato salad
  • bibimbop
  • sea cucumber
  • beef meatloaf dish
  • raw pork fortified with brain amoebas
  • fried eggs
  • pickled radishes
  • paste burrito
  • kettle of rice wine
  • bottle of soju

Sorry, that’s the best I can do with the descriptions. I’m pretty sure the raw thing wasn’t pork, but as I started chewing on it, Max says, maybe we are supposed to cook those. I spit out the raw thing as fast as I stuffed it in. I tried ordering a rice wine before the meal, not realizing that it came as part of the meal. The server didn’t understand me and brought me a bottle of soju instead. When I realized we had a whole kettle of rice wine to drink, I recapped the soju bottle with most of it still intact, saving it for the train ride home the next day. I was accused of being an alcoholic.

Other tasty treats in Hanok village of Jeonju included:

  • spinach pot sticker
  • shrimp pot sticker
  • curry pot sticker
  • potato pot sticker
  • curry croquette
  • one squid kabob
  • one honey beer
  • one grapefruit beer
  • green tea ice cream

Guest House

I walk out of our guest house, while Max takes a shower, into the courtyard, at most a five meter by five meter gated enclosure with a lawn and flowers, at our back alley guest house in Jeonju to say hi to the four girls on the adjacent porch sitting at a floor table busily working their cell phones. I introduce myself anyway asking them where they are from.

They are all from Taipei, they are all history students in a Taipei University and classmates, visiting one of the girls who is doing a year of study in Seoul. Of course, as a parent, my first response to this information is, are your parents ok with that, studying history? They all giggle, they cover their mouths with a hand about two inches in front. It is so cute. Two have boyfriends, one of which is a baseball catcher in the Taiwanese league.

Max joins us. I quickly lose control of the conversation. Max and the girls dive into modern culture discussing music and things I am generally unfamiliar with, though I know of Harry Potter and I think KPop is a band (I am wrong). I like watching the dynamics of the conversation anyway. The girls all confer in Taiwanese, then come up with an answer delivered through the interpretation of the one who speaks the best English, accompanied by hand over mouth giggles from the other girls as she speaks. It’s a fun conversation that lasts quite a while.

Max, you ask me if there is any upside to getting old. At your age, I never would have approached the girls by myself, even for a casual conversation. I was way too shy. Still am, but I don’t let it stop me anymore. Now I have the means for unachievable ends. How I wish I were twenty and sixty all at the same time.

Competitive Professional Sports

eSports is alien to me. I grew up with baseball, throwing a ball off a wall or off the stairs, playing whiffle ball in the street, breaking only for the car driving through the playing field, pissing off the neighbors by hitting a home run off their house on the other side of the street, using the sewer covers for bases at an intersection.

Max is a Protoss player in Starcraft II. He shames me when I ask if he is a Protis, mispronouncing his Starcraft race. I was actually proud of myself that I remembered that much. Max has me watching a round in the tournament at the studio. My adopted favorites in support of Max are Scarlet and Stats. They’ve made it to the final 32 in a Seoul tournament and are battling it out on stage.

A major studio, a live audience, cameras, announcers, post-game interviews, and real money intensify the drama, even though I don’t understand the fundamentals, let alone the nuances of the game. I know enough to know which player is which. I follow the ups and downs of the game through the emotional responses of the announcers and crowd.

Scarlett has a bad day, and frankly, we give a damn. Max informs me, she’s made it to the final 8 before. Stats has a great day, battling back twice from first game defeats to advance into the next round.

Money and status and pride are on the line. With my front row seat in the studio, I don’t need to see the images projected by the huge platform-supported cameras sucking up every micro gesture to see the hurt in their faces when they lose. The emotions are real. What makes boxing any more real than this, other than the extreme likelihood of permanent physical injury?

The Dusan Bears baseball game is another experience entirely, one I completely understand, but not at all what I am used to in the way of baseball spectating. Having just spent $85 dollars for a Cubs-Dodgers game back in the states, and more irritatingly, fifteen dollars for a watered down beer, I find it refreshing to watch the game from even better seats for twenty dollars, and good, undiluted, twenty-four ounce beer for a mere three dollars. Not that I want to reduce the event to dollars and cents, but in a way, isn’t that what professional sports has already done?

Sure, the pitchers only throw at a mere 150 km/hr (90 mph), and not every run is a 400-foot homerun. So the competition is a step below the MLB. (NOTE: Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu is MLB all-star). But Korean baseball spectating is participatory. It is fun: part rock concert, part cheerleader, and part baseball. What fun watching the little kids (and the big kids) bang their air pads together and dance and cheer for nine straight innings. What fun banging air pads together. No bullshit about how dull baseball is when the audience participates in every pitch. Korean Baseball isn’t dull to watch, it is exhausting! God bless the seminude dancing maidens( aka cheerleaders, with a nod to E.O. Wilson ). And go Bears!

Trip Pictures at: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1TZs0L64FP86GiB13JAWLJQiCzElnCcuo

Contact: author.mike.angel@gmail.com