Thor's Korea Diary
@22 February 2001
This afternoon I went out to a mountainous pine covered reserve on the ocean front and walked several kilometers around the precipitous coastline - cloudless blue sky, balmy air, steep rocky cliffs to the ocean, a lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. It would probably be awful with crowds on a weekend, but this Thursday afternoon it was perfect.
Getting to T'aejongdae Reserve from the city area is an unlovely twenty minute bus ride from the old Yongdo bridge near the Nampodong subway; (buses 101, 13, 30, 88, 8). That is, you start from the nearest thing to a downtown precinct which Pusan has. Pusan's downtown area sits at the head of a large bay scooped from a rocky coastline. Over a spine of hills to the west, the flatlands estuary of the Naktonggang River makes a home for birdlife and jumbo jets (Kimhae Airport). Pinched in a narrow flat against the steep hillsides and out of ken of the harbour, is the trendy shopping area of Nampodong with its boutiques, cinemas and food stalls. Here is the place for shoals of young things in designer jeans to be noticed on Sunday afternoons.
This whole area is bounded on the east by a multilane highway (with the subway beneath it), and beyond that, a solid phalanx of grey buildings wharves and warehouses crowd out the waterfront. The harbour itself is actually a deep channel made by a pear shaped mountainous island about 9km long, with the bottom of the pear stuck right in front of the city. Thus Pusan has its own "Golden Horn" (like Istanbul, or Vladivostok). Two bridges a few hundred meters long join to the mainland, the old bridge unobtrusive, the new one a low steel arch of brutal red steel, like the piles of shipping containers nearby. Both are arteries to a constant heavy roar of traffic.
Pusan has one of the busiest harbours that I've seen anywhere -- a large part of Korea's exports go through the place because Seoul doesn't have any good anchorage nearby. It is the world's third largest container port. The waterfront is just a mass of container ships and dockyard cranes, with trawlers, lighters and every kind of vessel squeezed in between. From a distance, scenes like this can have a kind of unvarnished workaday romance for idle visitors. However, the seamen, the dockers, the truck drivers on their bleak rotating shifts are doing matter of fact jobs with gargantuan orange coloured machinery, roaring diesel engines, massive containers of cold steel, thirty thousand ton freighter ships whose squat grey sterns are streaked with rust. Only for a few meters around the skirts of the old bridge can you find a footway to the water's edge, and here on a sunny afternoon a cluster of men with ruddy faces will sit for hours, their long black fishing rods motionless above the green depths.
There may come a day when Pusan is "the San Francisco of the East", but not yet. When your eye rolls off the picture postcard panorama, focuses down to the unwashed kerbs, the faceless buildings at your elbow, the total indifference of the clutter to any sense of grace, or design or comfort, then every sense screams that if you are not working a ten hour shift on the loading dock, well you have got no business here at all.
Although historically this locale has had villages, or a ragged town or two from time immemorial, Pusan is a new city, less than a century old. Its makers were not out to construct a monument to the best of human civilization. They took an anchorage, plus the labour flotsam of refugees from Korea's killing fields in the 1950s, and fashioned an industrial site; (although ironically this city has the highest unemployment of all Korea's cities now).
Eventually, one hopes, the people will claim Pusan back and give it the waterfront character of both beauty and function that nature has generously set the scene for. In the meantime, bad luck. There's absolutely no indication that Government or Industry have made concessions to public use and enjoyment of this inner city waterfront at all. Recall that South Korea has spent most of the last hundred years under the thumb of especially nasty variations on fascist control, and in a desperate race for industrial sufficiency. Maybe improved people-friendly planning will come in the future with more relaxed "lifestyle" politics. The Lotte hotel & department store conglomerate has just announced plans to build the world's tallest building right on the water's margin here at Nampodong, so someone is going to start noticing the view soon.
The bus was crowded. In Sydney, my hometown, the buses spend a large part of their lives carrying nobody much except a bus driver from one stop to the next. Here there always seem to be lots of people going somewhere. So I had to stand, and gather impressions of the passing scene between bodies. There wasn't much to see. Ugly multistorey buildings crowd down to the container ports on both the mainland and the island sides. I guess the nature reserve 9km out on the seaward end is there because no one yet wants to park an oil tanker in the open Tsushima Strait.
After a couple of minutes on the bus, I felt an insistent tug on the blue shoulder bag I was carrying. An ancient lady in one of the seats seemed to want the bag. She wouldn't look at me, but didn't loosen her grip and kept tugging. Well, why not... She didn't look like a bag thief. She planted the bag firmly on her lap. I tried to utter "kamsamnida" (thank you) in my mangled Korean, but that didn't win a response either. Her kind of good grace reminded me a bit of my own maternal grandmother, who fully expected to carry the burdens of the world and would snort at excessive gratitude. A few kilometers down the road my silent benefactor started to wriggle. She did some elaborate maneuvering with her old bones, and managed to stand up, leaving my bag on the seat. This was to stop all the other weary bodies plumping down before I could sit. Still not giving me a glance, she shuffled off at the next stop.
This inshore island, simply marked on my tourist map as Yongdo-gu district, has very little flat space. It is, rather, a large bulge (like a cross-section of the pear), with three main "humps" in the mountain range. Between the first and second humps, a road goes over the range to circle the bottom of the island. The main eastern road also continues to the second hump, where it goes over a low pass, then makes a loop as a gated tourist road around the seaward tip of the island. The buses all come to a terminus a few hundred meters before the tourist road gates. I knew none of this. Is is one thing to stare at a map. It is something else to figure out where you are in a bus, with a clutter of buildings zooming past. Therefore, I was forever anxiously looking out the window in case my transport did a sudden swoop and landed me back in Nampodong.
We came to a part of the road where it hung on the very edge of the island. To the left, fifty meters below, were several acres of low swampy land, obviously landfill, just covered in rough tufts of grass, or bare mud and puddles. I daydreamed that this was the sort of nest egg owned by gents who traveled in big black cars, and who were reclaiming the bay to pay for their gambling habits in Macao.. Doubtless a slanderous and unjust daydream. Whoever the lucky owner is, I hope he falls in love with a town planner who lusts after more than shipping containers.
To the seaward end of the reclaimed land was a long, low spit, a causeway leading to a rocky islet. Such strategic bits of rock usually have a story to tell, but in my ignorance all I could see was a great edifice of white buildings in the distance, at the base of the mount, and a huge white mockup of a ship's anchor by an entrance gate. It was, I guessed from the map, the Maritime University. From time to time on the Internet I had seen advertisements from that place seeking English teachers, my trade, which gave it a bit of resonance.
A lot of young people were getting off, and this seemed like a good spot to quit the bus for a while. Immediately to the south of the causeway a cluster of shops and low walled houses made a kind of village. When I took a narrow road between the buildings to the waterfront, the main business here became quickly obvious. Water tanks full of live fish sloshed onto the pavement, advertising the specialty of those bare-bones open-fronted restaurants you find at holiday spots in both China and Korea.
Though the weather was nice, this middle-of-the-week day hardly seemed a time to expect a rush of customers, but hope springs eternal. One look at me was enough to persuade even the optimists that I wasn't the last of the big spenders. If you wanted a fresh fish dinner, this did seem like the right place to come. A little past the last of the restaurants, the road merged into a concrete quay, and an enclosed anchorage packed with small fishing trawlers. They made a pretty picture, painted in primary colours. On the quay itself, doughty ajumas were hopefully hawking piles of fresh fish, squids, shellfish ... and in an exposed tidal flat behind the seawall a turmoil of seagulls squabbled over the day's pickings.
I walked back to the causeway, began to amble out towards the university, then thought better of it. There would be enough walking to come at the end of the bus route. The next bus headed more or less inland, up and down some steep hills, but quite quickly it seemed we pulled into a large parking lot with lots of other buses, and the remaining passengers scrambled out. It wasn't immediately clear to me that we had actually arrived anywhere. All I could see was a collection of nondescript shops.
Shrugging, I set out on foot up the main road, but it was only a few hundred meters before the tourist atmosphere of the place became obvious. Here we had actually crossed a neck of land to the other side of the island. Behind the shops a wooded hill arose on the left, while directly ahead, like sluice gates for a human tide, a multilane barrage of toll booths guarded the gates of paradise. I delayed paradise for ten minutes to take in the downhill scene to the right. My map showed a racecourse in the vicinity, but it must have been hidden somewhere behind a rise. From the road's elevation it was possible to look past a clutter of human construction to the glitter of water beyond. We seemed to be on the edge of a bay, formed by the pimple of rocky land which was T'aejongdae Reserve, stuck onto the tip of the larger island.
Like any explorer I wanted to get a clear grasp of where I had found myself. Early European explorers of "the mysterious orient" went in for map making with sextants, compasses and log books. I am less ambitious, but long experience as a traveler has taught me again and again that the very first mental pictures which one develops of a new city, a new country, any new bit of geography, are extraordinarily inaccurate. They tend to have the quality of a dream, where some features are magnified out of all proportion while others, perhaps far more important or objectively striking, are somehow not seen at all. Nowadays I'm even a little pedantic about going click-click with my eyelids, and ticking off surroundings in a mental notebook. It saves a bit of pain and time-wasting later.
A string of single storied cafes lined the right hand side of the road for a hundred meters or so leading up to the toll gates. Their open fronts revealed lines of pale green laminex and chrome tables. They were stripped of all decoration, and had that cafeteria air of "get 'em in, get 'em out". Such places have the same design philosophy as fish traps, and depend upon skimming off a percentage of large shoals (fish or people). On the pavement in front of each cafe was a small stall whose tin counter was piled high with a kind of "french fries", best described as potato shavings richly impregnated with fat. This was what a great uncle of mine long ago used to call "burley" when we hired a river launch to do a bit of fishing: scraps of food you threw into the water to draw the fish. Also outside each establishment loitered a herder, a woman for all seasons with a pushy manner, always wearing a large crimson eye shade.
Alas for business, on this sleepy Thursday morning there were no shoals, just the odd pair of giggly girls, or a couple walking their baby. The red eye shades watched me narrowly, but with no great confidence. Was I one of those indigent Russians off the freighters? An oil millionaire from Texas? Two of them ventured quick sallies with the hustler's universal English: "please come" , "very cheap" ... At such moments I have long learned to feign the confusion of a Moldavian turnip digger, and smile with guiless stupidity.
Just before the toll gates another large car park led off to the right. It made a kind of terrace, and at its edge the land fell steeply to some low flats, which may have been reclaimed from the bay. The car park though was there to service a fun park clinging to the very edge of T'aejongdae Reserve. Fun parks, by definition, are a celebration of garish taste, and taken in this spirit the T'aejongdae version seemed to have all the necessary gadgets : a big dipper, ferris wheels, various instruments to mass torture, guaranteed to at least make you seasick, balloon shoots, and all the rest. Also nearby was one of those hangar-sized structures covered in green gauze that are home to the frustrated golfers of Korea; (I've seen these things in a few other locations around town).
The sting to enter paradise was 900 won -- not too bad. Such places in Australia are usually free, but in China are a major vehicle for gouging the public (probably because, as with most things in China, any kind of charge or toll is in fact a private source of extortion from which "government authorities" in turn collect a percentage for general tax revenue]. T'aejongdae was doing its bit to solve the unemployment problem. One man sold me the ticket. A few meters up the road another man in a booth collected it. I had no sooner stepped away from him than a woman's voice in English called me back. She was not unattractive, and was fluent enough to chat easily. Was there anything I wanted? Anything I needed to know? Well, not really ... um, how far was the walk around the loop road? She consulted with the ticket collector, and they decided on 4.3 kilometers. I sloped off, warm with the inner glow of having kept three people in gainful employment on a morning when the cafe herders couldn't sell a single bag of potato shavings.
I took the lower loop of the road, which was a ledge going anticlockwise, cut into the steep hillside with the sea on the right. An occasional car or taxi whirred past, but mostly it was just me and the trees. Wiry trees, pines and other evergreen varieties, with little undergrowth, their knobbly roots holding themselves and the thin earth from washing off the old skull of rock that was T'aejongdae. A meshed security fence kept city road crawlers from venturing off the ledge to a precipitous tumble down through the scrub, into the water a hundred meters or so below. Shortly, on a spur of rocky land, a short road led off to the right. This intersection employed another man to watch the traffic that mercifully wasn't there.
The spur terminated near a low building, and some very steep stone steps going down, down, down ... to a fingernail inlet called Pebble Beach. It was a bit of a surprise to find a steady stream of people huffing up these steps, peering cautiously over the crest at the empty branch road, then ankle-picking their way down again. The surprise dissipated in an enormous boom of loudspeaker announcements (in Korean of course) which could be traced to a smallish cruise ferry anchored by a seawall at the tip of the beach. So much for mother nature. This raucous ferry was surely a harbinger of the auction sale yard that T'aejongdae must become on busy weekends.
A little further along the main road the hillside was creased with an old creek bed, and from the elbow this formed in the road a small track led up into the trees. I could see some buildings half hidden in the dappled shadows, then coming closer, the complex of a Buddhist temple painted in many colours. Everything seemed to be locked up. The walls were of lime green, but about the eves of the swooping roofs were designs in indigo, pink, and a clash of colours that looked distinctly Chinese in inspiration, and quite unlike the more subdued tones of, say, a Japanese equivalent. There is much in Korea, including a conservative harmony of colours in many environments, which reminds one of underlying common roots in Korean and Japanese cultures. Yet no sooner does a generalization come to mind than it flounders on some contradiction of style or attitude.
As I walked back down to the road a small group of middle aged women in the ubiquitous eye shades watched me emerge. If the foreigner had found something, maybe they should investigate too. Like many a person over thirty they had clearly lost the habit of walking further than across the room to a TV set, but after a mini-conference they shuffled over the road and began to edge up the track. No doubt the temple would speak to them in ways that were closed to me..
If T'aejongdae has a promontory, it is formed not by any jutting landform but the fact that one end of it faces seawards to Tsushima Strait. Somewhere near that point the road moves far enough back into the hillside to admit a kind of restaurant and dewing platform of several stories, cemented directly into the ocean cliff-face. It has a ticket window where those who feel they haven't seen anything until they pay for it can part with some money. They then have the privilege of paying more money to put coins in the slots of mounted binoculars. This lets them watch the empty ocean at a high magnification. Plebeians like me who like to catch beauty by surprise with naked eyeballs can loiter under the shelter of a road-level platform.
I plunked down onto a seat, and fished in my bag for some almonds and sultanas. The cantilevered building over my head canceled most of the sky, and gave an effect of looking out to the horizon through the mouth of a cave. Beyond the shadow above, the panorama was bright blue of many shades, for the day was a perfect preview of spring weather. The shapes of a half dozen ocean going freighters were faint in the diminishing distance. Closer in, a couple of tugboats, a lighter or two, and several white tourist ferries left foamy wakes, and widening ripples as they crept across the eyebright sea.
Oceans are territories of the imagination. A path in the forest always whispers the promise of leading to another path and another. An ocean whispers with an infinity of voices, until temptation becomes confusion, and a traveler without clear purpose is lost forever. On this day I let my mind range only to near places. Think that once in a time warp, perhaps two hundred centuries past, or two thousand, at this very place there was not an ocean but a forest path. Rich, dense green swampy vegetation, teeming with steamy life, heart-stopping predators, monstrous stalking lizards, bird creatures that flew on bat wings, things that crawled out of the swamps. But cetainly some path was made for a few brief lifetimes by human creatures, men and women, finding their way to another line of mountains, a place where all these centuries later stands the pleasant city of Fukuoka.
Then another loop of time, much shorter in its noose, to the island of Tsushima whose lord it fell to amongst the tribes of Japan to deal with the people of Choson to the west. From Tsushima's last landfall came the black ravaging ships of Hideyoshi six hundred years ago, and the cold grey ravaging warships of the Chrysanthemum Emperor a bare two generations past... Now my eye wavered in the luminous bright calm of a spring day, the moment of my fortunate life, hesitated, quailed from looking into the furnace of sunlight to the east, and what it might bring in times still to come.
A sudden movement caught my daydreaming, tore the veil and left my wondering at the barely touched packet of almonds in my hand. A young man had invited himself to share the seat. It was not a social gesture, he made no contact, no signal of recognizing another presence. There was a cloud of unhappiness about him, and a quick glance spoke loudly that he had demons of his own. On one pasty hand was a gold signet ring -- I saw that first -- as my eye traveled up the black arm of his overcoat. The body was stocky, but did not seem strong; the face pale and unhealthy with the broken skin of pimples. He smoked compulsively, and his dark eyes were entirely self-absorbed. His presence canceled the view, the bushland, the ocean. To be within ten meters of this figure was to be in a dim and musty room, faintly threatening. I sighed, picked up my shoulder bag, and walked out again to the ring road.
The map showed a lighthouse hereabouts. It was a few hundred meters further on, below road level on a shelf above the cliff face. Whoever was at T'aejongdae this afternoon was mostly here. Stone steps with white railings zigzagged their way down, first to the lighthouse, then precipitously to the ocean itself. It was quite a climb. I paused at the first staging, and looked over the rail. This could have been any of a hundred rocky headlands in my home state of New South Wales (Australia). Maybe seventy-five meters below the sheer cliff face, a flat stone skirt jutted out a little above the waveline.
It was made for rockfishing, and many motionless anglers perched there lazily with their rods and lines. Back from the water's edge, family groups, or friends sat in clusters; a few stretched out to sleep in the sun. A little to the right, on a natural pedestal, stood an uneven needle of ancient rock called, I think, "Woman Waiting Rock". Even for a culture with (surprisingly) few legends of the sea, there has to be a story there... The path was crowded with a constant stream of families, young children, courting couples, the very old too. Lots of Koreans seem to really like climbing up and down hills. At one of the zigzags a blowsy woman in her forties clambered past the rail, up into some tall tufts of grass and posed winsomely for her husband's camera. Ten meters behind and above her a large radar scanner swung in its silent, ominous arc. At least they will know when the next Hideyoshi is coming.
I plodded as far as the lighthouse enclosure, a heavy mass of concrete abutments painted white, and so far as I could see, without any visible occupants. Nowadays lighthouses can pretty well look after themselves. Was it worth another scramble down, or rather a long and energetic climb back, just to join the rock fishermen? Unlike these teeming hordes, I wasn't catching a tour bus or a limousine out of the place, and a fishing line wasn't to be found amongst the rubber bands and supermarket receipts in my pocket. So no. It was time to close the loop, to find a way back to the toll gates.
This turned out to be shorter than the outward walk, and mostly away from the sea because the road cut inland through a valley. The slopes on each side were less abrupt, and had been partly cleared as a recreation reserve. Somewhere up a path to the right I could hear the flat tone of temple gongs, but away from the lighthouse few people were to be seen. Across the road, not far from the exit, a lone student walked to an embankment where water was running freely, and picked up a blue plastic dipper on a string, to quench his thirst. A nice change from the instant coffee vending machines that lurk around every concreted corner in the urban jungle. As I passed the line of toll booths again the woman who spoke English looked out through her little window and smiled me good-bye.
* Note on personal names: all names in
this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.