Here we are, as Easter approaches, coming to the end of the Book One of Across Asia With A Lowlander in which the Lowlander and I leave South Korea via the port of Incheon to sail across the Yellow Sea to China in perhaps the most unromantically-named boat ever. Keep following for next week we’ll be starting Book Two: Master Potter Does Fine China, (I don’t know how I think ‘em up!).
Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all parts of the travelogue
Book 1: Embarking Upon a New Korea
Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China
2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan
2m: Urumqi (I)
2n: Urumqi (II)
2o: Urumqi (III)
17th July, 2002 – Seoul, South Korea
It was another early morning as we set off for another new country, this time virgin territory for us both, the Middle Kingdom, China. The lady at the Tourist Information desk had said that we needed to be at the port terminal in Incheon by eleven to buy a ticket, even though the boat didn't leave till past one. Problem was, she didn't say how long it would take to get to Incheon, Korea's third city and Seoul's outlet to the sea. We breakfasted as per usual in Lotteria and then made our way across the concourse to the subway station. As we passed the Tourist Information desk the Lowlander remarked, “They're probably glad to see us go, they can get back to doing nothing once more.” He was right, as I said before, in that city of ten million we seemed to be the only two visitors, which is a shame. Quite why Seoul, and indeed the whole of the peninsular attracts so few tourists is something of a mystery to me. Ok, so north of the DMZ it is understandable, North Korea truly does live up to the tourist motto of its southern neighbour as 'The best-kept secret in Asia'. It is so bloody well-kept in fact that even those weird enough to want to go, can't get in easily. But South Korea is completely open, (you don't even need a visa), and on top of that, it's cheap, safe, easy to navigate and full of interesting places to visit. I suppose being stuck in-between the big names of China and Japan doesn't help; those who want to see the Orient usually miss out Korea and go to one of its more illustrious neighbours. But nonetheless, probably the main reason why South Korea is so overlooked is that most travellers tend only to stay on the beaten paths, whether they realise it or not, and Korea unfortunately lies far away from any highway of Traveldom. I found the same to be true in the Philippines in South East Asia. The region is, on the whole teeming with tourists, but that archipelago, despite having numerous great sights, beautiful scenery, friendly English-speaking people and low costs, is remarkably traveller-free since it lies just off the traditional backpacker or tourist routes. Bad for them I suppose, but for me personally, well I quite like having these great places all to myself!
The Metro journey to Incheon was a long one with innumerable stops. When we eventually got there we took a taxi straight to the International Ferry Terminal, only to find that whilst buying the tickets would not be a problem, changing money was. It was a Bank Holiday and all the banks, including the one in the terminal were well and truly shut. Undeterred, I set off into the city centre, armed only with some Japanese yen and directions to a money-changers given by the terminal's Tourist Information desk.
Incheon, a city of 2.2 million is, along with Pusan, one of South Korea's two major ports. It shot to fame during the Korean War when General McArthur staged a massive maritime invasion there, which many believed was doomed to fail. But fail old General McArthur did not, and instead the entire course of the war was changed. The Southern Forces, which at the time held no more than an enclave around Pusan, started to push back and regain the territory that they'd lost to the North, and more. It took the addition of a million Chinese troops into the equation to turn the tide in Kim Il Sung's favour once more, and produce the divided peninsular we see today. Nowadays, the city bears few traces of the war and is more well-known for its International Airport and World Cup Stadium. Considering all of this, I expected the city centre to be a pretty impressive place indeed. The reality however, was far different. Walking around the streets, I could have easily mistaken the town to be one the size of Huddersfield or Groningen, rather than Barcelona or Bucharest. It was tiny! I suppose most of the businesses had been absorbed by the megalithic Seoul only thirty kilometres or so away, but even so it was surprising. What's more, nothing was open and so I quickly changed my yen and then headed back to the terminal.
Our vessel of conveyance towards Qingdao in China turned out to be the rather incongruously named Golden Bridge III, based in Panama, (nothing to do with tax, I'm sure). Like the port from which she departed, she was Korean, and a little smaller than I'd expected, but our cabin, complete with en-suite shower, was more than sufficient and there were no complaints from this quarter.
I was beginning to feel a bit of a true seaman by this stage, roaming the confines of the craft and comparing her with her sisters on the Irish, North, Java, Flores, South China, Mediterranean, Ionian and Aegean Seas that I have travelled on. The Lowlander however, was feeling unsettled. I always consider it a hilarious example of irony that he, born and bred in a small fishing community, on an island belonging to one of the world's greatest seafaring nations, should be so averse to boats, yet it's true. Whilst his drinking partners in the local cafe may be First Mates of fishermen, he requires a stack of tablets just to keep the contents of his stomach where they belong. Still, at least he didn't shirk from the challenge and for that he had my admiration.
The trip out of the harbour was more interesting than I'd anticipated. Once tired of looking at the other ships, our attentions were diverted to the fact that the whole harbour was several metres above sea level, and to get out of it required going through the largest lock that I had ever seen. By the time that the attractions of marine engineering had disappeared beyond the horizon however, I was settled on deck with a Colin Forbes novel, (a writer that I always seem to end up reading whilst on a boat or in a plane, I haven't the foggiest idea why), which was entertaining and contained a plot line reassuringly familiar to all his other books.
That evening's fare, served at the ship's restaurant, was a wholly unappetising creation laced with the ubiquitous kimchi. This side-dish, once a more than welcome addition to my dull diet of Japanese cuisine, had now become the backbone of my solids intake over the last few days, and I am sad to say that in this respect at least, I was glad to be heading out of Korea. Like so many Oriental dishes, it is fantastic as a change, but as an everyday thing? Leave me the sausage, chips and beans please!
That evening, to pass the time, I headed down to the miniscule on board bar to drink, read and write. I soon discovered however, that succeeding in the latter two would be an impossibility, when Jay, a Korean in L.A. (although not at that particular moment, obviously), joined me, and starting talking about his favourite topic, the art of making money. This nauseating subject, complemented by the movement of the waves, made me cut my visit to the Golden Bridge III's night scene short, and I headed up on deck to get my stomach settled once more.
It was then back to the cabin for the commencement of a most important contest. As I mentioned before, the Lowlander and I met whilst in Israel, and whilst there we both picked up the rules and a taste for that most Levantine of games, backgammon. Indeed, it could be said that we got to know each other over countless games of what the Arabs and Israelis call sheshbesh, in the kibbutz coffee house. Well, we are in Israel no longer, but the passion for the board of black and white triangles has remained, and so every time that we meet, we play. But never before had a full-blown tournament been attempted. However, with a whole month and more of long train journeys ahead of us, what better opportunity for a tournament of the most mammoth proportions, the best of one hundred games? And so we began, and after some hard dice rolling I emerged three-one ahead. Not bad for the first day, but the road ahead was long.
And with such thoughts in my mind, I turned in for the night, as the boat bobbed slowly across the Yellow Sea. South Korea, with its strange food, kind and friendly people, interesting culture, tragic war legacy and stunning scenery is a fantastic country and one all too often missed. I was glad to have seen a little and hoped one day to see much more, but for now my attention must be turned towards somewhere far vaster and unknown, the most populated nation on earth, a country with five thousand years of continuous history and the largest bastion of communism left, the People's Republic of China.