25 August 2008
we didn't get lost
The Korean peninsula likes to keeps us guessing. It uses a language we don't know and an alphabet we've only just learned to read. It talks to us and all we can do is smile and nod. But the smiling is more important than the nodding. Far more important. Because smiling means that you can get on the subway and ask a stranger how to get to the city of Suwon, and he will get off the train with you, walk you to your connecting train, and wait until you get on your way to Suwon.
And before you board the train the helpful man will say, "Have fun!" But then he will also quickly ask, "Can I say that? Is it correct to say "have fun'?" He'd already asked us earlier whether it is better to say "large" field or "big" field? Large field or big field? It's an admirable trait of many Korean English speakers... the desire to perfect their already solid English abilities. He's asking us how best to describe a wide swath of grass in English while we're just glad to know how to say "yes" and "no" in Korean on a good day.
These rudimentary language skills came in handy in our first real effort to transit and map our way to an unfamiliar Korean location. Our destination was the Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO heritage site in Suwon, outside of Seoul. After successfully arriving at the Suwon train station we got out our map and headed into the city past signs we had to sound out slowly and street names we thought we could read.
We poked our heads into a small store and asked the woman sitting at the cash register if we were going in the right direction. Actually, to be a touch more accurate, we said the name of the temple in our thick American accents and pointed up the street with a hopeful look on our faces. She nodded and pointed her own hand in that direction. And then Stefano-shi in a bold go at using our elementary Korean skills said, "Hwaseong Fortress, I walk?" And the lady nodded again. Hooray!
We did remarkably well and found our way to the perfect place to start exploring a fortress. Hot, humid, and uphill - we just kept walking up the hill and into the humidity until we reached the snack shop and the fridges filled with iced coffee and ice cream. And with our iced coffee and ice cream we explored the fortress all studded with turrets and temples, nooks and crannies. There was a big bell and someone's picnic laid out under painted rafters. And all the while storm clouds hung overhead but never let go of a drop.
We went aways in one direction and thought we might want to go a bit further until we ran into a very steep and very long set of stairs going straight down. We both looked at the stairs and then at each other, and then turned around again. We went back the way we had come and then some, and it was the perfect tour. Our route gave us great views of the city of Suwon, with its high-rise apartment buildings crowding any space not part of the hills. And in the end we realized that if we had followed our guide book's directions exactly, as in word-for-word, we would have made the fortress climb coming from the opposite direction and found ourselves on an ugly uphill trek. Instead, we saw it from the downhill side.
When we were back on the ground floor of the city we rambled through the marketplace all full of kittens in bird cages, dried fish in sacks, and sunglasses... jammed in and crammed in with someone screaming their benefits into a microphone. And on our way back to the train station we stopped for lunch at a kim-bap place and accidentally interrupted the staff's lunch. We ordered soba noodles, kim-bap, and udon soup and were rewarded with a flock of side dishes to boot: chilled kim chi, acorn jelly, sea weed, bean sprouts with sesame, green beans in chili. And in addition, since the staff was eating and happened to be generous, we benefited from a generous offering of chop chae (noodles) from their own meal.
Then we were back on our way to the train station where Stefano-shi bought railway train tickets for the way home (instead of taking the subway) and decreased our return trip to a brief 30 minutes. Sitting on the train, chugging our way back home to a home that's not quite home, was reminiscent of how we spent our two years in Italy. Not quite the same, but similar. Except that we woke up to a Musack version of the Beatles's Let It Be blasting from the ceiling speakers at peak volume as the train pulled into the station, presumably to wake up all the snoozers. Never had that in Italy.